Wednesday, October 9, 2013

FI: Much Ado About Nothing (2012)

Much Ado About Nothing
US, 2012
Adapted for the screen and directed by Joss Whedon

Sometimes it's difficult to talk about a film without talking about the means by which it was produced. Typically I'm a believer in judging solely by what's on the screen, since not everyone will be privy to (or care about) the details of production. But Joss Whedon's Much Ado About Nothing came about in a very interesting fashion, filmed in secret over a matter of days at Whedon's house during a production break on Marvel's The Avengers. Get-together's at Whedon's house have long featured Shakespeare readings among his coterie of actor and writer pals, and Much Ado is basically a filmed extension of these readings. Something of that loose, casual feeling has found its way into the film, perhaps carried along on the shoulders of all of the regular Whedonverse actors who appear in it, giving the film a sense of ease and comfort not always found when the Bard's work hits the screen. Thankfully, this casual feeling is a perfect fit for this tale of true love, crossed couples, and spitefully-provoked misunderstandings.

If Much Ado About Nothing is one of Shakespeare's most popular—and most frequently staged and filmed—comedies, the main reason for it would have to be the "merry war" between leading characters Benedick and Beatrice, whose sharp-tongued squabbling is by far the most memorable thing from the play. In this version, one half of this pairing definitely fares better than the other. Amy Acker bites into Beatrice's dialogue, giving the character's words an edge tempered by disappointment into a blade she uses to protect her family and her inner self. Whedon also, as he so often does, finds ways to emphasize the more feminist-leaning aspects of the character, and Acker hits the relevant scenes out of the ballpark. Alexis Denisof's Benedick comes off the worse for wear by comparison, and his character's oft-referenced mirth is sometimes hampered by line readings that trend towards the affectless. The other actors can go either way. First, to the good: As Don Pedro, Reed Diamond has probably the most naturalistic delivery after Acker, sounding perfectly at home in the Elizabethan tongue, while Fran Kranz makes a somewhat surprisingly effective Claudio and Sean Maher smolders as an almost-too-low-key Don John. On the flip side, Clark Gregg brings a little too much of Agent Coulson's flatness to Leonato, and newcomer Jillian Morgese doesn't give much life to Hero—though, in fairness, she may be the most underwritten major character in the play. Special kudos, however, go to Nathan Fillion, who plays the malapropism-prone Dogberry like Captain Hammer's more clueless rent-a-cop cousin.

As you might expect, the economics and economy of the film's production had a big impact on its look. Again, the play's sole location is Whedon's actual house, and its architectural style and decor certainly fit the part of a grand villa. The film looks great with its sharp, digital, black and white imagery, and cinematographer Jay Hunter adapts well to the constraints of the space through clever framing and natural and practical lighting. The film's score, also composed by Joss Whedon, is a bit over-present, but Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen's jazzy take on the play's songs mesh well with the film's 1960's Italian-chic feel. Overall, Much Ado is just what I would want out of an independent, labor-of-love Shakespeare production, and it's always fun to see favorites from Joss Whedon's shows working together again in new ways. People less interested in the Whedonverse might have a different take, but I imagine Shakespeare partisans and casual fans alike will find something to enjoy here.

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