My thoughts and feelings on Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing are conflicted. On the one hand, I found the movie tiresome and awkward. Yet, after learning how Much Ado was made, I grew to like the project more, as it has some real punk rock, let’s-make-a-movie spirit — the exact stuff I’d like to see more of in Hollywood.
So let’s start with what I liked: Whedon, the who directed last summer’s superhero epic The Avengers, produced Much Ado and had the entire thing shot in less than two weeks at his LA home. He also used actors he’s worked with before in his TV shows, like Firefly and Angel. You could say he has a cinema troupe, and thus it makes total sense that he’d have some fun reshaping Shakespeare.
And he does so pretty well. Our modern world — smart phones, one-night stands, trapeze artists for hire — all fit in the age-old fiction. The dialog is also neatly trimmed for the big screen. However, the first conversation you hear in Much Ado is beyond jarring. Just the language, how full and tight and sing-songy it is, pulls you out of the movie-going experience. You hear the words in the theater and think to yourself — Why are they talking like this? I wonder what texting these characters would be like in real life? God help our modern English! Am I getting all this?
The movie, I should say, is not hard to “get.” Whedon’s direction fills in what might be missed in the language. Some mouths, however, spit Shakespeare better than others. For instance, Jillian Morgese (who plays Hero) doesn’t sound nearly as good as Amy Acker (who plays Beatrice, the film’s female lead). That’s fine. But you notice it. Like the straight-up archaic-ness of the dialog itself, it takes you out of the story. Then again: What do you expect from a movie shot in just 12 days?
The story, in case you forgot it from high school, is full of match-making, and its scenes poke fun at love, particularly how humans (used to?) go about pushing it away, fumbling about with pride and saving face before coming to terms with those pesky, life-changing feelings. Whedon livens up all this soggy, almost sophomoric romance by highlighting the built-in comedy. And leading man Alexis Denisof (who plays Benedick) totally nails it as the witty but bumbling dude who falls in love after publicly swearing off romance. Together, Denisof and Acker (the girl he falls so hard for) are close to irresistible in their duel of quips and glances.
While watching those two together is as satisfying as a sonnet, some scenes, like the backyard cocktail party, are anything but. In such moments, everything going for the movie crumbles in on itself, creating a singularity of misery. (That might sound like hyperbole, but I was literally squirming in my seat). The words becomes tedious; the situation, insipid; and one suddenly questions that which is most visibly apparent: Why is this movie in black and white?
The answer to that question likely has something to do with the film’s budget and the schedule. Still, this is one of those things that troubles me about Much Ado. As much as I like some parts, I’m equally annoyed by others…But when I think about the movie, as a whole and in it relation to other things in the entertainment ecosystem, I’m totally behind it. What I mean is: As a viewer, you could see Will Smith go all Dad-Of-The-Year and give his son a leading role in an M. Night Shyamalan flick, or you could see what happens when Hollywood’s comic book hero wrangler does a pet project in his backyard, with Shakespeare. Which of those, I ask, sounds like the healthiest choice? The most fun? The answer, I think, is obvious. Just don’t set your expectations too high. After all, there’s nothing wrong with enjoying a movie for what it is. In this case, it’s Shakespeare in the backyard, with lots of alcohol.