SIFF Film Review – Much Ado About Nothing
I was born in a town with an internationally known Shakespeare festival, and I’m a Joss Whedon fan, so my bias is towards liking his new film, Much Ado About Nothing, which opened the 2013 Seattle International Film Festival. I love neither scribe unconditionally: some of Shakespeare’s plays tortured me in high school, and I’ve got some real issues with Dollhouse. (And honestly, The Avengers bored me silly. Don’t tell me I don’t get it; I worked in a comic book store for years. I get it just fine.) There are a lot of familiar faces here from Buffy, Angel, Dollhouse, Firefly, and The Avengers, and they all do a credible job at bringing one of Shakespeare’s best comedies to life. (Comedy in this context means a comedic drama where everyone gets married in the end instead of dying.) Both Shakespeare and Whedon fans will be drawn to this, and while no one is probably going to have their mind blown, I’d be surprised if they were disappointed. It’s an amiable interpretation that serves the source material well, although there are a few issues that prevent it from being really good.
Our story: Leonato (Clark Gregg) is the governor of Messina. He has a daughter, Hero (Jillian Morgese), and a niece, Beatrice (Amy Acker), who both live with him. He is being paid a visit by Don Pedro, the prince of Aragon (Reed Diamond), and his dour, trouble-making bother Don John (Sean Maher). Two of Don Pedro’s men are also staying at the house, Benedick (Alexis Denisof) and Claudio (Fran Kranz), both of whom have a past with the women of the house. Claudio and Hero are in love, and only need a little prodding to come together. Benedick and Beatrice are a whole other thing altogether. They were once lovers, but something came between them and Beatrice has taken to berating Benedick as a preemptive strike, hoping to drive him away before he can reject her. Don Pedro decides they would make a great couple, so he enlists the help of everyone to bring them together. Things seem to be going well for all involved, when Don John hatches a plan to destroy the joy of his nemesis Claudio. Will his devious plot succeed? You can look it up on Wikipedia, but I advise reading the play or watching the movie. It’s more fun.
This is a light and enjoyable modern adaptation with all the action taking place at a country house. (Whedon’s actual house.) It’s a lovely background, and its beauty sets the story very nicely. I often like Whedon’s work, but don’t usually think of it as being very visually stylish. This film is different; it’s filmed in black and white, and there is more emphasis on composition than I’m used to seeing from him. It occupies a middle place between art and workmanship, and I’d be interested to see him follow this path for a while instead of going on to some new superhero thing, but, well, that’s not going to happen.
The acting is another high point here. There’s a lot of good stuff, but the two standouts for me are Amy Acker and Fran Kranz. I’ve always thought Acker was a good actress, but she really nails Beatrice with her public strength and private vulnerability. Acker is equally good at comedy and drama, and manages to bring pathos to a role that veers from one emotion to the next. Fran Kranz is also crazy awesome. I’ve always thought he was a great supporting player with his roles in Dollhouse and Cabin in the Woods (his character is one of my favorite movie stoners ever) but I wasn’t quite sure he had what it takes as a romance lead. I was wrong, wrong, wrong. He’s really good; I’d like to see him in a lot more things. I would also like to give a shout out to Tom Lenk’s porno cop mustache. He and Nathan Fillion steal their scenes as two security guards, who—while not quite being fumblers—aren’t exactly go-getters. So while they are stealing the scenes from other actors, Lenk’s mustache is stealing the scene from them. I swear, it gets its own laugh.
Where the film fumbles is with Whedon’s adherence to the source material. (It’s all in Shakespeare’s original language.) Great emphasis is placed on Hero’s virginity, and like anything written in an earlier time, one has to roll with things we consider passé now. But, with the modern setting, and the fact that we know Beatrice and Benedick have already engaged in naughty behavior, it’s jarring. I’m not sure how I would have solved this particular problem, but it is a problem. There is also some sexiness in this film that is often missing from Whedon’s work, but with the exception of some Fran Kranz getting-out-of-the-pool beefcake, it’s mostly the ladies who are being caressed by the camera. It’s low key, but annoying. Lady flesh is lovely, but come on, people, fair’s fair. But in spite of my whining, it’s a fun movie worth seeing. It takes a while to get into the iambic pentameter, but once you catch on, it’s mostly smooth sailing from there.
Final Grade: B+
Also, be sure to check out our interview with actor Alexis Denisof and actress Amy Acker from SIFF 2013.