SXSW Review: Much Ado About Nothing

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Much Ado About Nothing

At a recent after-work happy hour, I mentioned that Joss Whedon's new movie is Much Ado About Nothing. My mostly twentysomething co-workers' reactions were entirely predictable: Joss Whedon? Shakespeare? A Joss Whedon Shakespeare movie? OMG OMG OMG! A Joss Whedon Shakespeare movie!

As one co-worker said, "You had me at Joss Whedon."

Yeah, people, I get it. I totally understand your enthusiasm. One of Hollywood's hottest talents has taken a detour from his usual fantasy fare and delivered something unexpected: a new twist on one of William Shakespeare's most popular plays. OMG!

To be clear, I'm not mocking Whedon or his fans. But I must explain that while I've seen a fair number of Shakespeare's plays and certainly appreciate his talents, I've seen only one of Whedon's films -- The Cabin in the Woods, which I enjoyed very much -- and none of his TV shows, not a single episode. Yes, I'm that unhip. I don't know enough to pass judgment on or muster much enthusiasm for his work. But I do know a lot of very smart, sophisticated and discerning people who madly adore Whedon, so he must be doing a lot of things right.

Is Whedon's vision of Much Ado About Nothing any good? Yes. It's unusual, clever, creative and expertly rendered. My Whedon-worshipping friends won't be disappointed and will recognize many actors from other Whedon endeavors, which I'm sure will add to the fun. It's also a creative risk, and I credit Whedon for taking it.

First performed in 1600 or thereabouts, Much Ado About Nothing is a comedy about two pairs of lovers, Benedick (Alexis Denisof) and Beatrice (Amy Acker), and Claudio (Fran Kranz) and Hero (Jillian Morgese). Benedick and Beatrice openly scorn love and one another, engaging in a "merry war" of words, while Claudio and Hero don't deny their love.

Claudio and Benedick are officers in the army of Spanish prince Don Pedro (Reed Diamond). The courtships begin when the three return from battle to Messina, the city governed by Leonato (Clark Gregg), Hero's father and Beatrice's uncle. When Don Pedro discovers...oh, I'll just end the synopsis here, because things get very complicated. The story includes mistaken identities, accusations of infidelity, cruel deceptions, jilted lovers, a villain (Don Pedro's evil brother Don John, played by Sean Maher), and the villain's foil, the comically inept constable Dogberry (Nathan Fillion, in the film's funniest performance).

Whedon's Much Ado About Nothing retains most of the original play's story, characters and dialogue, but moves the action to present-day Santa Monica. (Most of the film was shot in and around Whedon's Santa Monica home in a mere two weeks.)  The result is a complementary mix of Shakespeare's poetic words and a thoroughly modern (and thoroughly upscale) setting, with fashionably clad characters effortlessly conversing in the Bard's 16th-century tongue while moving about an immaculately decorated Southern California mansion. There are cell phones and archaic references to 400-year-old culture, but the two never clash except for occasional comic effect.

Much Ado About Nothing is visually interesting also, shot in black and white and enlivened with clever camera angles and plenty of close-ups of the painfully pretty cast. (My, my -- Whedon certainly has a lot of beautiful friends and colleagues, doesn't he?) In a more conventional film, such a gorgeous cast would reek of Hollywood cliché and make the characters far less believable. But in this case, the parade of pretty faces comes across as a pleasant visual device rather than a sop to the conformist demands of Hollywood. The black-and-white cinematography also bridges the film to its source material, making the movie look much older than it is and reminding us that the best Shakespearean plays are relevant in any era.

An expertly done film, it is -- but I recommend it with a major caveat. Much Ado About Nothing is thematically timeless, but the archaic language may render the film incomprehensible to viewers unfamiliar with the story. Such is the problem with Shakespearean works; the language is beautiful, insightful and often clever, but only if you can understand it. The cast members do an admirable job of conveying meaning through their inflexions and expressions, but still much of the story is lost in passages like "Would it not grieve a woman to be overmastered with a pierce of valiant dust? To make an account of her life to a clod of wayward marl?"

The solution, of course, is to study up on the play before seeing the film. Doing so risks spoilers, but that's a small price to pay to comprehend what's going on. With a good understanding of the story, viewers can focus on the language's poetry rather than struggle with its meaning. The Wikipedia article about the play is an excellent resource, with a detailed synopsis and a discussion of themes, wordplay, etc.

Much Ado About Nothing is a pleasant and elegant twist on a classic work, one with obvious appeal to Shakespearean devotees. But with its cast of stars from Whedon's hit films and shows, it may also introduce an entirely new audience to the wonders of Shakespearean theater. That is, if the audience does its homework ahead of time.

Austin/Texas connections: Amy Acker is from Dallas.

Much Ado About Nothing screens at SXSW again on Sunday, March 10 at 4 pm at Alamo Drafthouse Village, and Wednesday, March 13 at 11 am at the Rollins Theatre at the Long Center.

Valiant dust

"Would it not grieve a woman to be overmastered with a pierce of valiant dust? To make an account of her life to a clod of wayward marl?" makes perfect sense to me. One of her early lines is about how god made men of dirt and she refuses to give up her freedom to be owned (because that then she would have been) by a bit of mud shaped into a husband.