It would be pretty easy to cynically view Joss Whedon’s new modern dress Much Ado about Nothing movie, with its black and white, soft focus, Shakespearean dialogue and mostly unknown actors, as part of the second phase in a scheme to prove he’s actually some kind of super-humanly versatile director and that he can waltz effortlessly from big, loud summer blockbusters to quirky indie comedies. In other words, that Whedon is showing off.
I like to tout myself as the most cynical bastard on the planet because being snarky and anti-social is easier than talking to people, and normally I’d be jumping in that cynicism pie like a gaming television host whose career didn’t turn out the way she wanted, but it would be a tad harder to call Joss Whedon a showoff if Much Ado wasn’t fucking delightful.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with Shakespeare, the story takes place at the home of the Duke of Messina, who receives his friend Don Pedro and two of his officers, Benedick and Claudio, for a weekend of what rich white people do, so basically faffing about, being passive-aggressive and drinking a lot. After Claudio professes his love for Hero, the Duke’s daughter, The Duke, Don Pedro and a few other members of the supporting cast hatch a plot to get Benedick and The Duke’s neice Beatrice, whose relationship is roughly analogous to Sony and Microsoft at E3 this year and who both think the whole marriage thing can suck a lemon, to fall in love and get married. They didn’t have HBO in Messina, this is just how they spent their time. Meanwhile, Don Jon, brother of Don Pedro, hatches a plot to basically fuck with everyone’s day and ensure as many people hate each other by the end of the play/movie because well…if you weren’t matchmaking you were just being a douchecanoe. They really didn’t have much to keep them occupied.
What will probably divide most audiences is the dialogue, which as far as I noticed hasn’t been changed at all from the original text, meaning there’s a lot of “Troth” and “Hither to” and you really really need to be paying attention, or have studied Shakespeare at some point, to follow along. Some people can handle this, some can’t, and in fact I saw at least four or so people walk out in the first ten minutes, probably for this reason.
But if you’re willing to just pay attention and think on what you’re hearing, it’s actually fairly easy to pick up on everything that’s happening, even if you are missing the usual cavalcade of puns and innuendo the Shakespeare’s plays were known for (Consider this, in Shakespeare’s day “Nothing” was actually slang for vagina. Gives the title a new meaning don’t it?).
However, the problem with Shakespearean dialogue is that if it’s really hard to understand, it’s even harder to act. Where do you put the emphasis? What intonation do you use? How do you make it sound like something a human being would actually say? Basically it’s like wrestling an angry crocodile for three acts, and while no one ends up losing any limbs, it’s obvious some of the players have a better grip of it than others. Alexis Denisov, playing Benedick, probably has the hardest time of it, given that he has the most dialogue, or near enough. He does pretty well, but occasionally veers off a little bit and starts to sound a little over done and theatrical.
Now of course there IS the argument that Shakespeare is supposed to sound theatrical and even a tad over done, but if that’s the case why are Clark Gregg (Coulson Lives!) as The Duke, Nathan Fillion (Browncoats forever!) as bumbling constable Dogberry and Reed Diamond Homicide: Life on the Street was a really good show!) as Don Pedro all take turns bending that crocodile over their knees and spanking the teeth off it? Reed Diamond especially seems to master the art of making Shakespearean dialogue seem natural, and adding the right intonation and body language cues that even if you don’t understand the words, you can almost always tell exactly what he’s saying.
Special mention should probably go to Cabin in the Woods’ Fran Kanz as Claudio, Amy Acker in the female lead as Beatrice, and youtube sketch comedians Brian McElhaney and Nick Kocher, who basically OWN their scant 5 minutes of screen time.
And hell, if you still can’t tell what the hell’s going on, you can still appreciate the technical merits on display. The movie was shot over 12 days at Whedon’s own home using minimal equipment and on a budget that probably isn’t more than what they paid for all of Channing Tatum’s sweaty tank tops in White House Down, and yet visually it stands up with anything else out right now, if only for how amazingly spartan it is. Lots of natural light, low-key sets and costumes. It’s practically a Dogma 95 movie for how much it does with so little. And yes, I know what Dogma 95 is, just cause my normal wheelhouse is low-brow genre fare doesn’t mean I ain’t got culture.
If you’re part of Whedon’s loyal-to-the-point-of-cultism fanbase, odds are you’ve already seen this, your limited edition Puppet Angel plush cradled in your arms the whole time. However, if you’re outside that particular gaggle and aren’t quite sure what to make of this thing, give it a try. Yeah, the dialogue can be confusing as a Klingon word puzzle and maybe at times it feels a bit high on its own quirkiness, especially during that scene from the poster that seems to be going for a kind of Wes Anderson awkward charm. But if you give it a chance you’ll probably get a few laughs, leave the theater with a pleased smile and the knowledge that you’ve watched something with a bit of class to counterbalance the Larry Cohen movie you watched last night. Or maybe that last one’s just me.