Much Ado About Nothing (2013)

★★★★
☆
Released: 
2013
Director: 
Joss Whedon
Starring: 
Amy Acker, Alexis Denisof, Clark Gregg, Nathan Fillion
The Setup: 
Contemporary telling of the Shakespeare play.
Discussion: 

So my friend forced me to watch Buffy, which I became addicted to, then she forced me to watch Angel, which I remained tepid toward, except that I worshipped Amy Acker. I tried and failed to get into Firefly (but liked the movie). The point is, I am on board with Joss Whedon, and I like that he finds talented people and holds onto them, and I like that he is among the few people left in Hollywood who can tell a story with characters and structure and personal stakes. The tale is that, starting back around Angel time, he would have the cast over to his house to drink and have Shakespeare readings, and, when looking to make a small-scale movie after The Avengers, decided to film a play using his stock actors and filmed in his actual home. And it promised a heapin' helpin' of Amy Acker, which is what the world needs now. The only glaring flaw is a remarkable deficit of Adam Baldwin.

Still, I had cooled on it and would probably have skipped had not my friends wanted to go. This would have been a mistake, as it was as good as expected and better than expected in surprising ways. So no one's expecting you to read the play, but if you've seen Kenneth Branaugh's version that would be a help and offer a point of comparison. The deal is as such: At the house of Leonato, played by Clark Gregg, whom everyone loved from The Avengers, is his daughter Hero and niece (or something) Beatrice, played by the lovely Ms. Acker. They are joined by a bunch of people for a weekend party or something, which brings Benedick, played by Alexis Denisof, who was Wesley on Angel and is also the real-life paramour of Acker. There are other people I couldn't possibly even go into, but among them is Don John, general meanie and grumpy Gus. He is accompanied by this sloe-eyed expressionless rock chick who is a total hoot throughout.

So Beatrice and Benedick have a continuous verbal sparring going on. One of the added touches Whedon adds is a little prelude up front that shows the two of them in bed together, and let's us know that there already is a history is place. So they spar and insult each other, but everyone knows that they're into each other. Their friends contrive a scheme in which each will overhear how the other is in love with them, and thus give in to their feelings. This goes off handsomely. Meanwhile, other guest Claudio is in love with Hero, and there's this whole contrivance in which his friend pretends to woo her, only to give her (as property, Gloria Steinem wasn't on hand then) to Claudio. So Don John and his evil henchpersons connive to trick Claudio into thinking that Hero is a tramp, and things take a dark turn for a while as the wedding is off and there's a little murder compact in there, too. This occasions the entrance of Nathan Fillion as the humorously puffed-up head of security.

So it takes about twenty minutes to get going, and to adjust to all the characters and their strange way of speaking. But after a certain time everything clicks, and one is able to relax and just get into the story. This is a significant accomplishment, as in many Shakespeare adaptations one is aware throughout that one is watching a Shakespeare adaptation, and rather then engage with the story directly, is more engaged with how it is staged and how the actors get these lines out of their mouths. Here they are using Shakespeare's language, but speaking it with modern inflections, so that even if you can't understand the words, you get the sense of what they're saying, and as a result, can fully engage in the story and the emotions. One can't really say the same of the Branagh version or most Shakespeare films. And paradoxically, once you can relax and get into the story, structural things like the double relationship and the similarities to other Shakespeare plots become more apparent, not less.

One whole sheen of this adaptation are the little touches added in around the sidelines, usually nonverbal so as not to touch the Bard's language, that add humor and make the character's behavior more human and relatable. There is a lot of somewhat ridiculous slapstick around the moment when Benedick overhears of Beatrice's love, which works within the larger context of farce the movie has established. There's a hilarious fist bump when the conspirators have realized that they've succeeded, the rock chick slyly tosses away a joint, and a notable cupcake swiping, all of which add touches of gentle humor and commentary. Then Fillion and company come on as the overstuffed security force, and the physical humor reaches an apex.

Throughout, Acker is beautiful and charming as you could imagine, and it makes you hope for her to get more attention and more roles after this film. The context of the film also helps the abrupt turn from comedy into near-tragedy work. Denisof has always had his own way with his screen presence, making him take a while to become convincing (on Buffy and Angel, too), but it works better here, as he is able to channel his slight off-kilter quality into Benedick's somewhat delusional bravado. Everyone else is good enough to forget that they're walking through this momentously contrived situation.

So yeah, you should see it. Whedon fans will find plenty of his humor and humanizing touches, and those afraid of Shakespeare will find that they can actually get into this story on an emotional level and not just remain a passive observer. And it'll make you happy and send you on your way feeling good, which is more than can be said of Man of Steel.

Should you watch it: 

Yes, it's good.