Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Too Wise to Woo Peaceably: MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING

Some of the appeal of Joss Whedon's Much Ado About Nothing comes from the story of its making. Exhausted from writing and directing the blockbuster capstone of the first wave of The Avengers movies, Whedon gathered up a group of his actor friends and threw what amounted to a Shakespeare party at his house. In modern dress, they acted out Much Ado and had such a fun time doing it, they've now invited the whole world to watch. It obviously didn't come together quite so simply or spontaneously, but it might as well have looking at the finished product, which feels so breezy and simple with undemanding black and white digital cinematography, a homey backdrop, and sense of actorly camaraderie. All involved are on a clear labor of love, and to that extent it’s a fun bubbly reenactment.

I think of Whedon as a writer first, director second. In everything from teen vampire slayers to superheroes to the Bard himself, every bit of his career reveals him to be a man in love with words, how and why people say them and what those choices can reveal and dramatize. It makes sense, then, that every choice he makes here is geared towards showing off the original language of the play. As near as I could tell, aside from some abridgment, he keeps the original text of the play, his actors' additional glances and gestures entirely nonverbal. The black and white look and matter-of-fact approach to setting - Whedon's camera regards the setting as one would one's own home, disinterested and familiar - strip away any interest in focusing on the mise-en-scene. Here it's all about the words, loud, clear, and classic.

Plucking the play out of its Elizabethan context and placing it largely unedited in modern day California is a process not without wrinkles. Little details like characters gesturing with a smart phone when talking about a letter or referring to a holster as a scabbard are easily self-explanatory, but the plot itself is an awkward fit in modernity. After all, the delicate social comedy of Shakespeare's plotting in Much Ado rests on notions of patriarchal honor, arranged marriages, and a dispute over the nature of a female character's virginity, concerns which I assume are of much less of an issue in today's society. This is where I found it easiest to think of the adaptation as the exercise that it is. Viewed through a three-sided prism - Shakespeare, and cinematic comedy both screwball and romantic - the film becomes a three-ring salute to silliness at its most literate and lovely. If the film plays like a sunny party that flirts with darkness before turning out fine in the end, that's because it's precisely the soufflé the play is already baked into. The characters move through the play flitting to and fro trailing quotable bon mots behind them.

 A main reason we, or at least I, don't mind returning to see a new staging of old material is to see how new players approach the old characters. Here the material seems, if not fresh, then at least tricky and invigorating. As Leonato, the host of this party, Clark Gregg, lately Agent Coulson in the Avengers franchise, brings a charm and gravity to the proceedings, inviting his guests to stay, sup, and woo under his roof. As the couple whose hate just might turn to love, Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof bring broadness to their performances as Beatrice and Benedick, a big play-to-the-balcony prickliness that's pleasing. As Claudio and Hero, the couple who are negotiated together after some trickery, Fran Kranz and Jillian Morgese bring a dewy glamour. They're fine poles around which the film rotates.

All, from Sean Maher's Don John and Riki Lindhome's Conrade to Ashley Johnson's Margaret and Spencer Treat Clark's Borachio, are fine, but let me single out Nathan Fillion's delightfully underplayed work as the constable Dogberry. He's the only actor in the whole production who made me snicker consistently with each line, helped, of course, by linguistic contortions provided him in the source material. Fillion takes a typical Shakespearian clown and gives him the beautiful dignity he might deserve, which makes him all the funnier in the process. It's a fine bit of interpretation and a standout performance in a film of nice interpretations. Dogberry, indeed, may be the most important character in the play. He comes along to keep things funny at precisely the moment the main storylines have begun to veer into territory that seems, for the moment, irretrievably dark. As scholar Anne Barton writes in her introduction to the play in The Riverside Shakespeare, the constable "reassures the...audience that comedy remains in control of the action, even when the potential for tragedy seems greatest."

The deliberate slightness of Whedon’s filmmaking heightens the "nothing" of the title. The whole thing is a froth that's not entirely helped by the indifferent approach to modernizing a dusty set of social norms. Still, Shakespeare is an awfully hard playwright to mess up. Even if one were to spend time burdening his work with post-modern curlicues from a stylistic bag of tricks, the sturdiness of the material would surely hold to some extent. There's a sparkle of genuine affection - for the material, for the production, and amongst the cast and crew - that lights up the screen here. The beautiful smallness of Whedon's Much Ado About Nothing simply allows it to feel most fully like the after-superhero mint it was for him and now to a mid-summer audience that I suspect may receive this feature most gratefully.

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