I wanted this movie to be awesome. I really did. In my nerdy little world where I love both comics and classic literature, I was ecstatic at the fact that the director of The Avengers and Dr. Horrible’s Sing Along Blog was directing a modern adaptation (in setting only) of a Shakespeare comedy. Much Ado About Nothing was to be the perfect crossover.
Let’s be clear that this movie isn’t terrible. Nathan Fillion is brilliantly idiotic as Dogberry. Amy Acker is a compelling and likable Beatrice. I especially admire her when she is brushing away a drunken suitor who is trying to caress her. Beatrice is endearing. Clark Gregg is charming as Leonato and handles the especially difficult scene where he doubts the chastity of his own daughter remarkably well. Sean Maher, Spencer Treat Clark, and Riki Lindhome were especially insidious villains. I love the decision of making Conrade a love interest of Don John. Portraying Borachio as having a secret crush on Hero gives him added motivation to destroy her wedding while also explaining why he would toss away his loyalty to Don John after hearing of her death. Another brilliant interpretation is emphasizing the hints in the script that Benedick had previously broken Beatrice’s heart. These interpretations and adaptations really worked. They give the characters a unique motivation for their choices while still remaining authentic to the original play.
Unfortunately, there was a lot that didn’t work. I was left asking “Why?” quite frequently. The biggest was the portrayal of Benedick by Alexis Denisof. Benedick comes off as a hard case in the beginning of the film, which makes it extremely difficult to enjoy his character throughout the rest of the film. Yes, Benedick should be pompous. But he should also be a likeable fool. He should be more brash than cool. More Flash than Batman in his cockiness. Denisof’s tough guy performance at the beginning is incongruous with his silliness in the much more effective and enjoyable scene in the garden when he is ridiculously eavesdropping on his compadres. This garden scene is easily the best scene in the film and had Denisof portrayed this tendency for silliness earlier, then the audience might interpret his “tough guy” portrayal as peacocking. Instead, Denisof’s performance is unconvincing and the audience is not nearly as invested as they should be in rooting for this estranged couple to swallow their pride and confess their love for each other.
Other baffling aspects of the film include the inclusion of a bleached blonde photographer who is awkwardly in the center of the mise en scene on multiple occasions. At one point she points her camera at the audience in a heavy-handed attempt at self-reflection. In another scene she seems to be taking pictures of nothing at all. It is the highest drama of the scene, after Claudio has just accused Hero of being a whore at their wedding alter, and she is snapping pictures of what? The flowers?
Filming Much Ado in black and white seems just as heavy-handed an attempt to broadcast that “this is classic literature.” And what was up with the weird, twin, androgynous trapeze artists?
The costuming was also baffling. Whedon filmed the play in his own home, so maybe the wardrobe was limited to his wife’s clothing, because there didn’t seem to be a consistent theme. The most obvious poor choice was Hero’s wedding dress. While the idea of Hero wearing the same dress that Margaret wears when making love to Borachio adds another layer of irony to Don John’s deception, the matronly dress is certainly the least wedding-like choice of the two that Margaret offers Hero.
The only thing more awkward than her hideous dress is the unfathomable decision to include an African American actress in the background when Claudio delivers a racist line about an Ethiope. Why wouldn’t Whedon cut this line? Was this just Whedon saying, “Ha ha! Shakespeare was racist!”? Because it ended up just being in poor taste.
There were pleasant surprises though too. For one, the casting of Tom Lenk as Verges as well as Brian McElhaney and Nick Kocher as the first and second watchmen were wonderful additions to the entourage of Nathan Fillion’s subtle yet hilarious portrayal of the fool, Dogberry. The scene where Dogberry and Verges lock their keys in the car is priceless.
The most pleasant surprise is Fran Kranz as Claudio. Claudio is probably one of the most difficult characters in Shakespeare to sympathize with, especially for a modern audience. He falls in love faster than Romeo, becomes victim to jealousy faster than Othello. Yet, Fran Kranz portrays a Claudio that is an awkward youth who obviously feels inferior to Benedick and Don Pedro. This explains why he would be so taken with Hero and so susceptible to jealousy. Whedon’s interpretation of the play is a spot-on analysis of the play, “I fixated on this notion that our ideas of romantic love are created for us by the society around us, and then escape from that is grown-up love, is marriage, is mature love, to escape the ideals of love that we’re supposed to follow.”
And that is what is most frustrating about this film. Whedon knows what he’s doing. He knows his Shakespeare. He knows how to film a movie. It’s amazing that he filmed this in 12 days but infuriating that he didn’t take more time with it. He could have done so much better.
If you are NOT a Shakespeare fan, don’t see this film. If you are a Shakespeare fan, don’t see this film. Well…at least wait for it to come out on DVD.
2 out of 5 Nerdskulls plus 1 just for Nathan Fillion. So 3 out of 5 Nerdskulls.