Watching “Much Ado About Nothing”
The new adaptation of the William Shakespeare romantic-comedy “Much Ado About Nothing” has the feel of a low-budget film made by a group of friends, which is both a good and bad thing.
Shot in about two weeks at director Joss Whedon’s California home while he was taking a short break from making “The Avengers,” the cast is filled with TV veterans who will be familiar to fans of Whedon’s cult TV shows, such as “Dollhouse” and “Firefly.” On one hand, the small-scale, contemporary setting — this “Much Ado About Nothing” takes place in the here and now — is liberating, smartly updating one of the Bard’s best-loved plays and showing how many of his themes still reverberate. On the other hand, I found myself wishing Whedon had taken even more liberties with the play than he does, and opened it up just a bit more: Despite the modern dress and glossy black-and-white palette, this is a very faithful adaptation, and the social mores of Elizabethan England don’t always translate to the year 2013.
But they mostly do, so it’s easy to overlook the parts of the play that now seem somewhat problematic.
“Much Ado About Nothing” is billed as a frothy comedy where everyone falls happily in love, but Whedon’s version is unusually barbed and, occasionally, melancholy. In the film’s first scene, we meet the play’s sparring lovers: Benedick (Alexis Denisof) and Beatrice (Amy Acker). Benedick is putting on his clothes and leaving Beatrice’s after a one-night stand; Beatrice, though awake, does not look at him or acknowledge his departure. We then jump forward to the mansion where the rest of the action is set. Don Pedro (Reed Diamond) and Claudio (Fran Kranz) are returning from abroad, and arrive at the home of Leonato (Clark Gregg) to hang out and party. Claudio immediately falls in love with Leonato’s daughter, Hero (Jillian Morgese), who is Beatrice’s cousin. Benedick, another friend of the family, loudly proclaims his disdain for love and marriage at every turn, as does Beatrice. Naturally, their friends hatch a plot to match them up. For Claudio and Hero, romance progresses more smoothly. Claudio asks for Hero’s hand in marriage, and receives it.
“Much Ado About Nothing” is essentially a screwball comedy, with Benedick and Beatrice playing the part of the bickering couple who are hopelessly attracted to each other and will not admit it. But the play has darker undertones, and Whedon doesn’t shy away from them, which makes the happy ending unexpectedly bittersweet. The villainous Don John (Sean Maher) and his allies trick Claudio into believing Hero has been unfaithful to him, and is not a virgin; Claudio responds by rejecting Hero at the altar in front of her friends and family. As is typical of Shakespeare, much of the action hinges upon the stupidity and vanity of the characters: Claudio refuses to listen to Hero’s protestations of innocence, and storms away. Meanwhile, the bumbling local police crew, led by the dimwitted Dogberry (Nathan Fillion), has learned of the sinister plot against Hero.
The darker, sadder half of “Much Ado About Nothing” has a lot going for it. Whedon has always been interested in female protagonists, and Acker shines as Beatrice, ably portraying a sharp, bold, unconventional woman who chafes against the narrow gender role assigned to her by the society in which she lives. She’s also the most sensible character in the film, remaining loyal to Hero when even Hero’s father is ready to turn against her. The scene where Claudio, Don Pedro and Leonato lash out at Hero strips away the charm of the play’s main characters, revealing their vanity and underlying misogyny. Although the contemporary setting (and characters’ frequent hook ups) make it difficult to believe Claudio would really be all that invested in his betrothed’s chastity, his wounded pride, sense of possession and cruelty are timeless.
This scene is so potent that the happy ending sticks in the throat a bit. Most viewers (and probably Whedon) will probably agree that Claudio really doesn’t deserve Hero — that he is weak and oversensitive, and that Hero would be well within her rights never to forgive him. Of course, the couple we really care about is Benedick and Beatrice, and although they nearly talk themselves out of love and back into their “merry war,” they, too, find happiness.
Watching “Much Ado About Nothing” reminded me of watching “Dangerous Liaisons” with my college roommate, who loved the tangled love affairs, scheming and relentless gossiping of the characters. “What do these people do all day?” she kept asking. It was a good question, as the characters seemed to have an infinite amount of time for causing trouble.
“Much Ado About Nothing” is a similar film. The characters have all the time in the world for drinking wine, eavesdropping, dancing and planting the seeds of discord in each others’ ears. It’s a lot of fun to watch, and sometimes it cuts pretty close to the bone, too.
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