Much Ado About Nothing
Directed by Joss Whedon
Opens at the Charles June 21
Would that American students weren't wont to meet the plays of William Shakespeare with suspicion and feigned incomprehension, they might come to discover the genius of the world's most famous playwright. For in Shakespeare's plays resides an examination of the most base and basic human emotions: hatred, jealousy, embarrassment, melancholy, love.
Praise be that Kenneth Branagh made some of the Bard's better-known plays-Othello, Hamlet, Henry V, and Much Ado About Nothing-discernable to an audience more in love with television than language. Yet even the combination of Shakespeare and Branagh's facial hair stands no chance against the temptation directors face to attach their own interpretation to Shakespeare's exploration of universal themes.
And so we're given an adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing from Joss Whedon, a man perhaps best known as director of The Avengers, or as the writer and director of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the show that featured a slender blond woman and other sundry characters driving wooden stakes into the hearts of vampires long before the Twilight craze.
Done away with in Whedon's remake are the period costumes and whimsy behaviors of Englishmen of old. Both the play and the movie are set in Italy, although this adaptation was shot mostly inside Whedon's Los Angeles home. It's Much Ado with modern flair, filmed in monochrome. Swords are replaced with pistols and holsters. Suits, heels, dresses, martini glasses and tequila shots, and music delivered over the speakers of iPhones make for a humorous, if jarring, juxtaposition with actors' and actresses' lines that haven't been updated from the original play to reflect diction circa 2013.
War-weary officers Claudio (Fran Kranz) and Benedick (Alexis Denisof) return to the home of Leonato (Clark Gregg), the governor of Messina, along with Don Pedro (Reed Diamond) and Don John (Sean Maher), Pedro's just-defeated, resentful, and rebellious brother. It's not long until Claudio falls madly in love with Hero (Jillian Morgese), Leonato's daughter, and a marriage is arranged. Meanwhile Leonato's niece, Beatrice (Amy Acker), and Benedick trade witty barbs and eschew the idea of marriage entirely.
Cue Whedon's appropriation of one of Shakespeare's oft-employed devices, the play within a play. The other characters go about putting on isolated performances, pretending Beatrice and Benedick are hiding affection for the other and effectively fooling the two into love. Here, Whedon's adaptation deviates slightly from the play. An underwear-heavy flashback suggests that Beatrice and a clean-shaven Benedick were, in fact, lovers before. The audience's cue that they will be lovers again ensues when a bearded Benedick, fresh from battle, shaves, then gazes longingly into a photo of Beatrice while resting on a twin mattress with stuffed animals stacked nearby-an image not quite as poetic as the Bard produced.
For the rest of the film, Whedon's adaptation is a worthy informant. But if you're too frugal for the ticket prices of movies these days, we're sure Shakespeare's words are cheaper to purchase.