Much Ado About Nothing (2012, Joss Whedon)
Joss Whedon’s decade-plus of mythmaking on national television warmed the hearts and enriched the lives of a lot of people I know, but not really me; I’ve seen two Buffys and enjoyed Alyson Hannigan’s appearance on Loveline. Despite his involvement with Toy Story, the writer-director-producer-talent scout’s subsequent move outward into the land of Marvel Comics characters seemed further yet out of my wheelhouse, but then he went and messed with Shakespeare. In the midst of a furlough from production of The Avengers, which we should quickly remind you is the most financially successful movie of the present decade so far, he decided to invite some friends over to his beautiful, ornate, slightly yuppie-ish house in Santa Monica, switch the RED over to black & white mode, and just on a no-budget whim adapt one of the finest comedies of all time, Much Ado About Nothing, literally in his own backyard. Because that’s a thing you can do when you’re Joss Whedon and you have some extremely attractive and technically proficient friends.
There’s no reason to think that Whedon has any particular attraction to the contrarian thrill of following a massively expensive superhero movie with the smallest, most trifling thing he’s ever put his name on; from a distance, though, the sense one gets is simply that he is an eclectic creator whose enthusiasms run equally in many directions. We must infinitely respect this, especially when the final result is a movie this delightful, one that doesn’t dilute or dumb down its material but manages to render it overwhelmingly accessible (the wide-ranging audience of teenagers and seniors laughed at all the right spots when we saw it) and to play it out with immeasurable respect, like a loving cover of a great song or — better yet — like a complementary frame for a masterful painting.
It’s harder than usual, in the case of so precise and economical a masterpiece as a Shakespeare comedy, to separate this film from its source material, so it’s best to quickly run down the virtues, warmth, humor and sophisticated sexual politics of Much Ado itself. In its flawless structure following two couples — one barbed and acid, the other quietly smitten — and putting them through the wringer of third-party conniving and threat before at last allowing weddings and forgiveness, it directly anticipates and informs the entire idea of screwball comedy and relationship comedy at large, thus a massive chunk of Hollywood cinema owes sufficiently much to it that it’s amazing only one major film of it had already existed (Kenneth Branagh’s stiff 1993 variant). But the most crucial element of the play, what one assumes won Whedon over about adapting it and everyone else about seeing a new film of it, is its stunningly full-on and progressive characterization, especially of the anti-romantic leads Beatrice and Benedick, sardonics who’ve melted equally sardonic hearts now for four centuries.
That’s both a perfect basis for a modern comedy and an astonishingly intimidating prospect for even so experienced a writer-director as this. Whedon’s wisest move here is to know when to step aside; part of the excellence of his contribution is his atmospherics, which have the hazy, elevated romance of something like Smiles of a Summer Night but also a pronounced earthiness. Though the imperfections of digital black & white photography are still hard to deny, the minimalism of the production places emphasis on the often brazen wit and poetry of the words, with the actors responding impulsively and “singing” their parts — but also on the resources of cinema, which Whedon uses to embellish the untouchable source visually. This isn’t a proven or tested theory, but it might be one of the best introductions to Shakespeare in existence, for Whedon’s delightfully inventive streak here is to allow his movie to function as silent cinema, using facial expressions and balletic actions to “fill in the gaps,” so to speak, that might be left for someone unfamiliar with the fast-paced eloquence of Shakespeare.
That isn’t to say that anything here is nearly so cartoonish or overplayed as, say, Keanu Reeves’ ponderous performance as Don John in Branagh’s film. Whedon rather hits a goldmine with his perfectly-attuned feel for both subtlety and clarity; the result is a film one won’t hesitate to recommend to anyone as a fine romantic comedy, with or without prior knowledge of the play and without even the caveat “but it’s a Shakespeare movie.” I’m on the record as generally not approving of Shakespeare films; indeed, the only two I’ve ever loved prior to this are both variations on a play that never really meant much to me personally (Macbeth). I have always found his work more fulfilling to read (or see performed, presumably, but I’ve never had the pleasure) than to watch on a screen and count the liberties and excisions of a given filmmaker’s interpretation of one untouchable totem or another. It puts any director in a bad position, like adapting a novel that’s a masterpiece; generally, without some sort of radicalism, there is nothing new to say about a story that’s already reached its highest possible form in another medium. And radical ideas can go equally awry — Baz Luhrmann’s respectably audacious Romeo & Juliet is little more than a ’90s time capsule already, with Leonardo DiCaprio’s dreadful performance emphasizing just how much some actors shouldn’t be asked to pretend to understand this material.
These are pratfalls Whedon avoids. Though his Much Ado takes place in our own time, he recognizes that this isn’t a gimmick; it hardly matters, because aside from the old-world shaming of female promiscuity that isn’t nearly as old-world as we’d like to wish, this is a story of people in and out of love, betrayals and deceptions and things that are no different now than four hundred years in either direction. There’s no air of pretension to his read of the film — it isn’t simplistic, but it is elegant and beautifully unadorned, and looks and feels like the buoyant party it means to bring to life. Every decision he makes indicates great taste, which can be a debit if it’s code for something overly dignified and stagnant, but no; Whedon’s willing to bring in his heroically brilliant interpretation of the watchman sequences, or to have Benedick (Alexis Denisof) make a fool of himself trying to listen in on a conversation he doesn’t know he’s supposed to be hearing, using the most traditional Keatonesque slapstick movements to do so, always teetering just on the edge of real depth and farce that a truly fine comedy should.
Operating from the premise that we will always have Shakespeare films, the largest point to make is that they can only ever be as successful or competent as their director and cast. Whedon’s cinematically exciting subservience to his lovingly verbose source has been covered, but his greatest coup may have been casting. The only actor who doesn’t fully sell a complicated character is Fran Kranz as classic loverboy douchebag Claudio, and it’s primarily because the actor’s likability makes his two major transitions rather hard to take. Otherwise, Sean Maher’s Don John is one icy bastard, Fran Kranz and Jillian Morgese’s Claudio and Hero a trustworthily tentative match, but it’s Amy Acker and Denisof who make the film so valuable. Denisof’s performance as Benedick has been widely criticized, which frankly makes no sense to me; he captures the bitter cynicism and slight brokenness of the role with an utterly convincing fusion of the modern suited “bro” and the Cary Grant circa His Girl Friday romcom archetype — and embodies the character with impressive physicality underneath all the hilarious tonguetwisting.
Beatrice, though. This is possibly my favorite character in all of Shakspeare; when I was a teenager with the kind of social life sufficiently rich to make me want to hang out with fictitious Shakespearean figures, I wanted to hang out with her. It’s seldom occurred to me, no exaggeration, that Beatrice is some capturing of an imagined life lived long ago; she’s always seemed so vital, lively and fully-formed to me that I intuitively assume she’s just continuing on somewhere, breathing as she never really did, and this of course is an element not just of Shakespeare at his best but of great characterization in general. (Naturally, taking this back to the movies, I think of the three leads in Broadcast News and how I occasionally have to remind myself consciously when I remember the film that they are not real people.) Beyond her obvious humor and vibrant independence, I have always been moved by the severity in her bitterness at the central injustice in the latter part of the play and how it successfully, if only incidentally, illustrates that her individual passion would translate to any love she gave being as intense and sincere as can be imagined. Even though the critical union happens so late in the narrative, we can so easily imagine its depth as a rich romance between equals, one in which a specific, almost private form of communication between great, hard-won friends will continue as the clothes hit the floor and night becomes day thousands of times hence. Much Ado features only a few actual romantic scenes, but the implication of romance beyond its borders is among the most sumptuous I can recall.
Needless to say, then, this character is important to me, and I was nervous — not least because an actress I really admire, Emma Thompson, already failed to do her justice in cinema. But Whedon and Acker completely “get” Beatrice, and you can tell within the first five minutes of her performance; it gets stronger yet in the final half-hour when her outrage comes to drive the story. Seeing this enlivened so well in a movie gave me a sense of utter joy, and I assume this is what it feels like when one is a great fan of a franchise or character and a movie comes out that nails it, showing real confidence and love for the material while spinning it all into something that feels inspired and engrossing. If this isn’t the best Shakespeare film — it probably isn’t, but it’s the best one I have seen to date — it certainly must be one of the warmest and most delightful. Along with Frances Ha, this is the best feeling I’ve had coming out of a movie this year, and a big part of that pleasure is the feeling of having been won over by someone whose stranglehold on geek culture I once mocked with abandon. Beatrice could relate, I hope.