When the news came around that Joss Whedon was finally getting around to directing a Shakespeare film, it was pretty damn exciting for a couple of reasons: First of all, Joss, and secondly, Shakespeare (what more could any die-hard Whedon fan and theatre geek ask for in a movie?) This week ‘Much Ado’ opened in limited release this week (LA/NY/SF), and opens wide on June 21st. This is my spoiler-free not-a-review.
In short, ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ is a simply wonderful film. Joss totally gets how take Shakespeare and make him accessible to modern audiences without being pretentious or reverential. The black-and-white production has a very clean, crisp look to it, and the overall feel of the film is light, yet breathtakingly elegant. If this film were a girl, she would be Audrey Hepburn.
That the film was bound to be wonderful was pretty much a given…It’s Joss Whedon and his friends, and cast of regulars, getting together to do that voodoo that they do so well. The thing that had been intriguing from the time the project was announced was what Joss’ approach to adapting and presenting the material would be. The tendency with Shakespeare, in the tradition of great companies like the RSC, is to be (at least in my opinion), too steeped in reverential dogma and claptrap. Shakespeare is often cloaked in intellectual mysticism and passed off as high-brow writing only meant to be understood by elite audiences and scholars, which is about as far from the truth as you can get. Shakespeare was probably more like the Neil Simon (okay, maybe leaning more towards Tom Stoppard) of his day, as opposed to a Pinter or, god forbid, an Ibsen or a Chekov…In fact, while he was generally well-regarded, and respected in his day, the Bard didn’t really come to his current stature as a preeminent playwright until the 19th Century.
I really believe that if Shakespeare were alive today, he’d be more like a Joss Whedon than a David O. Russell, and maybe that’s the key to why ‘Much Ado’ works so well. Joss gets it. Joss knows exactly how to make the this work come alive for a 21st Century audience.
Whedon is not afraid to slaughter a few sacred cows on the altar of audience accessibility. His direction brings the material into a context that let’s present-day audiences cut through 16th Century language, manners, and colloquialisms, in order to let the witty, snarky, and often bawdy as hell, meaning of his language, shine through, and he does so without compromising the integrity of the source material.
A lot of the credit also has to go to the superb ensemble cast.
The company manages to deliver performances that use modern phrasing and mannerisms, along with props and environment, to frame the language of the play in a way that it is inherently understandable. There is a considerable amount of physical comedy, sight gags, and pratfalls that make this movie a complete delight. There is even a visual play on a throw-away line about an ethiope that has the entire audience doing a spit-take. This is really great stuff.
Also worth mentioning are some really standout individual performances, especially those of Amy Acker, Alexis Denisof, Nathan Fillion, and Fran Kranz, who, in my opinion, steals the show. Also honorable mention to Tom Lenk, who doesn’t have a whole lot of lines, but turns in a highly memorable performance as partner to Fillion’s Doggsberry.
I’ve seen a number of productions of ‘Much Ado About Nothing’…Both on stage and film. The show frequently falls flat, as it does in the ’93 Kenneth Branagh adaptation, and I’ve never found it to be one of Shakespeare’s best comedies (‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’ being my personal favorite.) After seeing this production, I’m going to have to re-evaluate that…It’s just a show that needs a very accomplished hand to bring out its true potential, both in terms of the play’s comedy, as well as its more fevered, poignant, moments of despair.
As much as I love it when Joss Whedon goes big, as with ‘Avengers’, it’s always his passion projects that really showcase his genius. I loved this film, and will see it over, and over, again…Starting tonight, with another screening.
Afterward: The Second Screening
The Saturday night screening in San Francisco played to a packed audience, and was followed by a Q&A with cast members Alexis Denisof (Benedick) and Tom Lenk (Verges.) Both actors were extremely cordial and gracious with the audience. Long time friends, they exuded the kind of camaraderie that is part of the story of Whedon and the people who work on his shows.
I can’t say for sure, but I think the word-of-mouth on this film is going to be pretty big, and will be a surprise went it opens wide next week. This film deserves a great opening.