As devoted Joss Whedon acolytes know, the Geek God has long had a relationship with the Immortal Bard, staging regular readings of classic Shakespeare plays in his humble home with various cast members from his various TV shows stopping by to speak Shakespeare's speech on their days off from mouthing Whedon's lines. Though these readings were sadly never taped for public consumption, it was a thrill for Buffy, Angel, Firefly and Dollhouse fans (yes, there really are some of the latter -- I'm one of them) to imagine the possible actor/role match-ups that went on behind the closed doors of the Whedon homestead. How about Eliza Dushku and J. August Richards as Juliet and her Romeo? Or Anthony Stewart Head holding court as Falstaff with Nathan Fillion's Prince Hal sitting at his feet? With Much Ado About Nothing, Whedon finally invites audiences into his living room... literally. This contemporary version of Shakespeare's comedy of (mostly bad) manners was filmed entirely on the grounds of the director's home and features a rash of familiar Whedon faces trading in his pop-culture laced quips for the flowery language of another era. It's a delight for Whedonites, but -- I'm sorry to say -- a rather mediocre production of Shakespeare.
Let's be clear, the fault lies not with the original play or Whedon's direction of it. Filmed during a hiatus from The Avengers, Much Ado was his way of releasing the high-stakes tension that goes with overseeing that kind of mammoth production. And one can feel Whedon's palpable relief in just turning the camera on and pointing it at the actors, rather than green screens and tennis balls on sticks where CGI characters will later be. While not overtly showy, the film has a definite sense of style, from the luminous black-and-white photography to the slightly off-kilter framing, where the camera is never exactly where you expect it to be. And in adapting Shakespeare's text, Whedon has hit the big comic beats while also zeroing in on the aspect of the play that compliments his general thematic interests, namely independent-minded women asserting their power in situations where men believe themselves to be in charge.
That's certainly present in the central relationship between battling verbal brawlers Benedick (Alexis Denisof) and Beatrice (Amy Acker), whose tart-tongued put-downs are eventually transformed into songs of love by the machinations of their friends. (In a prologue created for the movie, Whedon shows them having bedded each other before, which positions them as exes rather than simple frenemies.) And it's also there in the cruel treatment of Hero (Jillian Morgese), the beautiful young woman that Claudio (Fran Kranz) intends to marry until he's tricked into believing that she's a... well, what's the 16th century term for slut? (Strumpet? Harlot? Take your pick.) In both cases, the men reveal themselves to be vain, prideful fools while their more sensible female counterparts figure out a way to put things right -- though again, with words rather than a stake to the heart.
So in Whedon's capable hands, the play itself is still very much the thing. What's lacking, unfortunately, is the performance of it. While it's true that everyone can understand and perform Shakespeare with a little effort, not everyone can perform it well. And that's what happens here. By opting to cast his friends and colleagues (both of out of professional loyalty and as catnip for his fanbase to goose the box office) over a troupe of more experienced Shakespeare performers, Whedon put himself in a position where he'd be taking the good with the not-so-good. It's the same problem that befell the last high-profile movie version of Much Ado, Kenneth Branagh's 1993 production, which chased after a wide audience by cramming out-of-their-depth movie stars like Keanu Reeves and Michael Keaton opposite more skilled Shakespearean wordsmiths like Branagh and his then-wife Emma Thompson, who played Benedick and Beatrice.
The shadow of their sparkling performances looms long over Whedon's B&B and while Acker is up to the challenge it pains me greatly to report that Denisof -- an actor I greatly enjoyed during his Buffy and Angel days and who is overdue for a career revival -- isn't performing on her level. Instead, he falls into the trap that can trip up so many actors trying to do justice to Shakespeare: he's able to speak the speech, but can't effectively communicate the meaning behind the words. His delivery is closer to recitation than performance and that flatness afflicts several other key cast members as well, including Sean Maher as the treacherous Don John (the very role Keanu Reeves had such a hard time with in the '93 version), Reed Diamond as Don Pedro and Tom Lenk as Verges, assistant to Nathan Fillion's buffoonish police officer Dogberry. (Fillion isn't the most natural Shakespearean actor around either, but he has the good fortune to have been handed a role that's so broadly comic, viewers are chuckling too much at his physical antics to pay close attention to his somewhat labored line readings.)
On the flip side, Kranz and Morgese share Acker's aptitude for actually performing the text, and bring some real heart -- as well as humor -- to Hero and Claudio's romance. In fact, this storyline is the most significant improvement from the '93 version, where the young lovers were played by Robert Sean Leonard and Kate Beckinsale -- both attractive actors who were overshadowed at the time by the dynamic duo of Branagh and Thompson. As someone who is always happy to support the prospect of more Joss Whedon and Bill Shakespeare on the big screen, I'm glad that Much Ado About Nothing exists and that the involvement of Whedon's personal troupe guarantees it a decent-sized audience. But I only hope that those same viewers make a point of going from the multiplex to their local reparatory theater company (or a taped performance of a professional theatrical production) to hear what truly great -- as opposed to merely good -- Shakespearean acting can look and sound like.
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