Does anyone really, truly think this Shakespeare comedy can be adapted to modern day Santa Monica, California without being stymied by awkwardness? Much Ado About Nothing is an affable exercise for “Avengers” filmmaker Joss Whedon and his TV and film stock company of actors, and something of a task for the audience to interpret displaced Shakespeare text. If it were done as a ravishing period piece (something like Kenneth Branaugh’s 1993 film), then it could have had appeal. Updating and contemporizing it is a fool’s game.
It takes awhile just to tell the characters apart because of the contemporary dress on analogous faces. Clark Gregg, as Leonato, has the most distinguished suit and presence as the governor of Messina (and implied business mogul). The rest of the cast needs to be figured out and picked apart, as you steer through two parallel love stories taking place over the weekend at the governor’s house. In the 21st century, can you find any weekend house that can hold an infinite number of party guests?
The wedding is to bridge Claudio (Fran Kanz) with Hero (Jillian Morgese, the one luminous, classically feminine face), but rumors of her promiscuity will spoil their plans lending way for public scandal or shall we say – lots of brouhaha. The budding secondary story has perpetual bachelor Benedick (Alexis Denisof) courting the hard-to-please Beatrice (Amy Acker). A dozen other characters weave in and out, with diminishing returns. But there has already been acclaim across the critics board for Nathan Fillion’s dry take on a constable, i.e., police officer. Droll, he is, but try figuring out why his character would be there for any modern reason.
The times of Shakespeare simply do not mesh with today in this particular adaptation. Whedon must be charmed and nostalgia-struck by the original play. He has some quirky directorial ideas with buffoonish pratfalls and slapsticky eavesdropping. An early party scene with trapeze artists has a black & white shimmer to it, an image I might not forget all summer long. But a 12-day shoot done with HD cameras conducted right after principal photography, and prior to editing of “The Avengers,” reveals it to be a self-indulgent lark for Whedon (it was shot at his home).
The whole thing is a chore for most of us especially if you are immune to anachronistic irony and contrariness. But if you have lots of time on your hands and you are a Shakespeare die-hard, then a no-frills, black & white stock company “Much Ado” might be a novelty that a true academia can embrace. The high school student of course will be able to use this as a visual Cliff Notes aid once it hits home video.
109 Minutes. Rated PG-13. In black & white.
DRAMA / ADAPTATION / SUNDAY MORNING AFTER RECITAL
Film Cousins: “The Taming of the Shrew” (1967); “Much Ado About Nothing” (1993); “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (1999); “Hamlet” (2000).