The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 24.0274 Friday, 7 June 2013
Date: Friday, June 7, 2013
Subject: Joss Whedon’s Much Ado: Opens Today
Arguing Their Way Into Love—is from today’s New York Times.
June 6, 2013
Arguing Their Way Into Love
By A. O. Scott
Joss Whedon’s adaptation of “Much Ado About Nothing” — perhaps the liveliest and most purely delightful movie I have seen so far this year — draws out the essential screwball nature of Shakespeare’s comedy. It may be the martini-toned black-and-white cinematography, the soigné Southern California setting, or the combative courtship of Amy Acker’s angular, sharp-tongued Beatrice and Alexis Denisof’s grouchy, hangdog Benedick, but from its very first scenes, Mr. Whedon’s film crackles with a busy, slightly wayward energy that recalls the classic romantic sparring of the studio era.
For Beatrice and Benedick there is a thin line between hate and love, and a clear line of succession links them to, say, Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant in “Bringing Up Baby” and Rock Hudson and Doris Day in “Lover Come Back.” At the same time, this is a bracingly modern production, well stocked with actors, none quite household names, whose faces will be familiar to fans of Mr. Whedon’s previous work, in particular television series like “Angel” and “Firefly.”
“Much Ado” was shot cheaply and quickly while the director was occupied with the mighty labor of “The Avengers,” and it is in every way superior to that bloated, busy blockbuster. Also shorter. Do not suppose that this is reflexive literary snobbery or a preposterous apple-and-orange comparison. Shakespeare’s knotty double plot, propelled by friendships, rivalries and a blithe spirit at once romantic and cynical, is a better vehicle for Mr. Whedon’s sensibilities than the glowering revenger’s tale that every superhero movie is forced, these days, to become.
The best parts of the “Avengers” were its bouts of verbal wit and playful dueling among characters uncomfortably ranged on the same side of a battle, evidence that Mr. Whedon cares more about character than about plot. As fans of “Firefly” and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” well know, he has a special affection for articulate rebels. The faster they talk, the more he loves them.
The most exciting action in “Much Ado” is the way Beatrice, a diva of withering disdain, and Benedick, a maestro of gruff misogyny, argue themselves into a state of starry-eyed mutual infatuation. Their amours are aided by the mischief of friends and kin — Reed Diamond’s Don Pedro is especially fine — who recognize the desire lurking behind the anti-couple’s ostentatious contempt for each other.
Their prickly romance is entwined with the tale of a younger, simpler pair of lovers: Beatrice’s cousin Hero (Jillian Morgese) and Claudio (Fran Kranz), a member of the retinue of soldiers that also includes Benedick. Their union is threatened by the scheming of Don John (Sean Maher) and his treacherous companions, who conspire to wreck Hero’s honor partly to wound her father, Leonato (Clark Gregg), at whose big, suburban house everyone is staying.
You do not have to have stayed awake in your high school English class to know how it all ends. Shakespeare is an eternal rebuke to modern spoiler sensitivity. His audiences always knew how a play would wrap up, and they did not enjoy themselves any less. (Today’s movie audiences are the same but have been brainwashed to believe otherwise.) A good deal of the pleasure in “Much Ado” comes from the exquisite deferral of the inevitable resolution, and the intensity of the tears — Hero’s especially, but also Leonato’s — that are shed on the way to a joyous ending.
These are matched by spontaneous, giddy bursts of laughter. Some are supplied by Mr. Gregg, the most reliably funny and doggedly human presence in the “Iron Man”-“Thor”-“Avengers” cycle of mechanical marvels. But any version of this play stands or falls by its Dogberry, the bumbling constable whose logical and verbal pratfalls are their own kind of wisdom. Dogberry, perpetually aggrieved and secretly noble, is like a Samuel Beckett character, and Nathan Fillion (the former misbehaving captain of Serenity) plays him like a weary cop from a police show on the brink of cancellation, resigned to the bureaucratic indignities and petty absurdities that surround him.
Here I should confess a bias. I prefer my Shakespeare in modern clothing and with American accents, and so I like Mr. Whedon’s take on “Much Ado About Nothing” better than Kenneth Branagh’s star-studded, fancy-dress 1993 version. In this one the costumes, the sets and the voices anchor the play in a pop-cultural dimension where it sparkles effortlessly, and a few loose ends and incongruities only increase the fun. The Italian political context in which Shakespeare embedded his couples was never very plausible or coherent, and here it is enough to know that they dwell in a world of money, power, shifting allegiance and factional intrigue.
And sex. While not terribly explicit, this “Much Ado” has a sly, robust eroticism entirely appropriate to Shakespeare’s text, which abounds in earthy wordplay. The title itself is a dirty Elizabethan double entendre, and the actors relish the naughty nuances of their dialogue. The flirting and swooning have some heat, which goes a long way to making the movie as cool as it is.
“Much Ado About Nothing” is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned). It’s filthier than your English teacher let on.
Much Ado About Nothing
Opens on Friday in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco.
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