Apex Fan Bob Foster’s review of Shakespeare by way of Whedon.
Synopsis: Love is found, lost, and found again in William Shakespeare’s comedy. Claudio meets Leonato’s daughter Hero and falls in love. They, their friends and their relations conspire to make bickering Benedick and Beatrice realize they love each other. Douchenozzle Don Juan and friends conspire to break up the couples.
One of the great many beautiful things about the works of William Shakespeare is the fluidity of setting. On stage, on screen, or in other mediums; the persons behind the production can change the time and setting of the work, yet not lose the heart of the dialog or characters. The reasons for this can be wide-ranging: for style, Baz Luhrmann’s ROMEO + JULIET; social commentary, the Ethan Hawke starring corporate world HAMLET; quirkiness SCOTLAND, PA (The Scottish Play, you know the one that starts with Mac); or stupidity, GNOMEO AND JULIET; among many others. (The Troma fan in me would toss me in toxic waste if I don’t drop a mention to TROMEO AND JULIET here).
For Joss Whedon, to update MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING is to place focus on the characters and their words. He made the film using his own house substituting as the estate of Leonato (Clark Gregg, AGENT COULSON LIVES!). The simplicity of the setting, the black and white photography and the basic – yet still beautiful – cinematography, strip away the excesses of film to focus the viewer on where it really counts for the best of the Bard: the words. This would be the cinematic equivalent of performing the show on a bare stage: nothing to distract the viewer. (Although I recently acted as Tom Snout/Wall in a production of A MIDSUMMER’S NIGHT’S DREAM with a fantastic set) But, there is a bit of unintentional humor comes from Dogberry’s police station seems to just be Whedon’s basement, complete with entrance and exits being done via a staircase.
The success or failure of a Shakespeare hinges on the performers. Gathering many actors who have previously worked with Whedon, along with a few newcomers, most acquit themselves most honorably, finding the humor and emotion in the words; anyone who has spent time studying Shakespeare can attest sometimes this can be very hard. However there are times where the emotion drowns out the dialog, reducing the words to noise. A few actors stumble occasionally and only three just don’t work. Amy Acker (DOLLHOUSE, CABIN IN THE WOODS) as Beatrice is a real break-out, ably jumping through Beatrice’s quickly changing, conflicting emotions. As Benedick, Alexis Denisof (just about everything Joss)is pitch perfect in character but does slip out of the words a handful of times. He is best when joking with his boys (or reacting to them in his eavesdropping scene) or verbally sparing with Beatrice. Unfortunately when Beatrice and Benedict drop the flirting by insults and give straight forward love notions, the chemistry notably nosedives. Whether this be intentional as the characters themselves are unsure of themselves in the situations or between the actors, I cannot tell.
Fran Kranz’s (see Acker) Claudio and Clark Gregg’s Leonato are both very able. As Claudio’s love interest Hero, newcomer Jillian Morgese has charm but is often very flat on the dialog. On the not-so-good side finds Spencer Treat Clark, Riki Lindhome, Nick Kocher and Brian McElhaney. Clark clearly speaks his lines but looks bored. Kocher and McElhaney as Dogberry’s detectives seem incredibly confused. Lindhome as Don John’s right hand woman (a gender change from the source) Conrade is the only castmember to be gratingly bad, with all the line-reading skill of a SciFi original often cringing me out of the film. FIREFLY’s Sean Maher is present as Don John and did fine enough but as most of his scenes are opposite Clark and Lindhome, it is hard to properly gauge.
Lastly (in his own paragraph) but certainly not least, is Geek God Nathan Fillion. Captain (Hammer/Reynolds, you pick dear reader) knocks the comic relief (in an already very funny script) out of the park. Constable Dogberry is the antecedent to any “bumbling but right-hearted cop” character and Fillion wrings every laugh he can get. I want a time machine just to go back and make Wild Bill write more Dogberry scenes so four hundred years later Fillion can perfect them. The man is a treasure and it’s roles like this where I can’t help by think “why is he not more known!?” (yes there is CASTLE but still). Fillion is this generation’s Bruce Campbell: a fantastic comedic talent the geeks are hyper-aware of just waiting to break it big.
To conclude, both the source play and movie of MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING are damned funny and heartwarming. Joss Whedon, skillfully crafts a purposely small production that allows focus on the actors and the characters, most of whom do very well. Recommend.