Saturday, June 22, 2013

Review: Much Ado About Nothing

Shakespeare adaptations are a notoriously hard thing to get right, especially these days and especially when set in the modern day. Not only are the vast majority of the plots of Shakespeare plays well known to modern audiences but they also look kind of silly when set in modern day. You also have to contend with well known previous adaptations looming large over your film; Much Ado for example has an excellent Kenneth Branagh adaption from a couple decades back. Still, there is something about Shakespeare that makes his stories and characters timeless, which means that people are constantly trying to readapt and reinvent his works, and I’m always rooting for them to succeed. And Joss Whedon, and his assembled cast, certainly succeed here with flying colors.

The plot? Why do I even need to tell you, it’s a Shakespeare play. And frankly, its one of the plays I like better. I’ve always been more fond of Shakespeare’s tragedies and histories than I was of his comedies, but Much Ado About Nothing is one of two exceptions (the other being A Midsummer Night’s Dream). It’s about the usual things; love at first sight, marriages, tricking people into being together, but it’s set up in a way that I like, especially with the exceptionally snarky romance between Beartrice (here played by Amy Acker) and Benedict (Alexis Denisof).

Which I think, to segue as awkwardly as possible, is one of the keys to this movie’s success; It has an absolutely superb cast. Yes, everyone likes to roll their eyes at how many times Joss will reuse his cast members from previous movies and TV shows (which is certainly present here: I count at least 9 people from other projects helmed by Joss), but he does it well, as the cast members he reuses get him and his approach, and here they are especially game for the material.

Denisof and Acker in particular work very well, their natural chemistry bouncing off each other while they dive not only into their dialogue, but also a pair of hilarious physical comedy sequences, with admirable gusto. At first it was weird seeing Fran Kranz, who previously played a stoner for Joss in both The Cabin in the Woods and Dollhouse as a straight heroic role, but he does exceptionally well, even as the movie is aware (as most modern adaptations are) that his romance is not exceptionally interesting. Clark Gregg is a good father figure to the entire cast, putting real emotion into a couple of the heavier scenes. Reed Diamond is a good choice to play the Prince, even as his screen time and dialogue are limited. And it must be said, Nathan Fillon and Tom Lenk work so well together as bumbling cops that I really wish they’d gotten more screen time; why can’t we try to get Tom Lenk to appear on Castle?

If there is a weak spot to the cast, aside from Hero who is a weak spot not so much due to her actress but because she’s not really much of a character, it’s Sean Maher as the villain. It’s not necessarily his fault, and he’s certainly better than Keanu Reeves was in the same role in the 1993 film, but his character’s explicitly stated motive is ‘Cuz I’m a jerk’ and Maher isn’t really able to try and put any more nuance into that, even as the script and direction works to.

The film is also solidly directed; Joss is a good director and he always has been, and he shines here in subtle ways. His decision to shoot the film in black and white was an interesting one, as was his decision to fade to white instead of black between cuts, but they both work as highly stylized choices that help the movie feel more like a unified whole. It all works around Joss’ excellent direction, that seamlessly transitions between the comedic dialogue and the more serious sequences.

What I think I like best about the movie is that it trusts its audience. It never bothers to explain why they’re calling what is clearly just a house in LA Messina, or why people are being referred to as Princes or Dons, or trying to explain why it calls a gun a sword (yes I’m still a little irritated about Baz Lurhman putting sword on the side of the gun). It knows that we know it’s a Shakespeare play and doesn’t feel the need to explain itself beyond that.

With the exception of Iron Man 3, all of the big budget movies of the year have been either disappointments or just flat out bad. When that happens, it’s up the indie scene to pick up the slack, and Joss and co. have done just that, making what is not only undoubtedly one of the best movies of the year, but also one of the funniest and most endearing. If it’s playing near you, you need to go see this. Highly recommended.

Elessar is a 23 year old Alaskan born cinephile and it’s nice to see Alexis Denisof and Amy Acker get together without one of them suddenly dying horribly.

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