IS IT AN ATTEMPT to drum some culture into the comic-con nerds? The Bard did, after all, invent the notion of meeting-cute. And who better to appreciate Beatrice and Benedick’s smart-alecky badinage than Joss Whedon?
Shot over 12 days at his Santa Monica mansion, The Avengers director’s let’s-put-on-a-show Shakespearean house party is stocked with so many regulars from his television series (Buffy, Angel, Firefly and Dollhouse), it’s hard not to view Much Ado About Nothing as a weekend acting retreat for veterans of geek TV. The no-frills camera work, black-and-white palette, and easy camaraderie between cast members makes for an intimate and infectiously good time. Kenneth Branagh’s sun-drenched adaptation set in a Tuscan villa still sits atop the heap, but Whedon’s charming ensemble acquits itself respectably, finding the comic heart of male vanity and female assertiveness, as well as a few dark grace notes along the way.
Set in the present, Whedon kicks things off with a wordless and ill-advised prologue that suggests that the two had a drunken one-night stand, after which Benedick snuck away, thus stoking Beatrice’s sharp-tongued anger. This conflict is set against a masquerade ball wherein Leonato (Clark Gregg) is celebrating the arrival of Don Pedro (Reed Diamond). The two patriarchs encourage their children, Claudio (Fran Kranz) and Hero (Jillian Morgese) to be married, and the lovestruck kids are all-too happy to comply. Unfortunately, Don Pedro’s brother Don John (Sean Maher) decides to undermine the impending nuptials by convincing Claudio that his betrothed is a promiscuous hussy. Confusions and complications, as they say, ensue.
Much Adois a smart choice for Whedon to wet his Shakespearean whistle on, as the story bristles with competing agendas, witty exchanges and slapstick situations all under a single roof. There are no great battles or exotic locales to re-create, just the ever-shifting allegiances of lovers, family members and interlopers. And though his upper-middle class suburban setting sometimes feels a bit cramped, Whedon makes good use of the space at hand. His staging is clever yet modest, providing just enough comic possibilities for his dedicated cast.
Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof tackle the key roles of Beatrice and Benedick, the hot-blooded couple whose insults and arguments mask their true feelings for one another. (And what would rom-coms today be without Willy S’s comedic template?) Given the actors’ past collaborations, the two should be a good match, but only Acker truly shines, masterfully balancing Beatrice’s feminine doubts with a wicked wit. Denisof (a former member of the Royal Shakespeare Company) is a bit too stiff and understated to capture Benedick’s prickly bravado, never generating the sparks necessary to ignite the infatuation that hides behind the couple’s stated hatreds.
The rest of the cast gives confident and conscientious performances, with Clark Gregg standing out as Hero’s father and Nathan Fillion delivering a memorably comical turn as the dimwitted Constable Dogberry.
What’s mostly missing from this entertaining cinematic doodle is Whedon’s personal connection to the material. While he does a wonderful job of pruning the Bard’s plot entanglements and highlighting the play’s effervescent exchanges, the beloved filmmaker doesn’t bring anything new or unique to the table. Which is odd, considering his television shows’ deft handling of gender politics. One would think that Much Ado’s subversive attacks on masculine pride would prove fertile ground for Whedon’s trademark dismantling of male-female archetypes. This incongruity becomes especially clear when Hero’s wedding is undone by a bunch of angry men accusing her of being a whore. I can’t think of a woman in the entire Buffyverse who would put up with that shit for a minute.
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