In my review of the Taviani brothers’ brilliant “Caesar Must Die” earlier this year, I touched on some of my difficulties with modernizing Shakespeare. The challenge that directors face, in bringing the Bard to contemporary times, is to keep the sensibility of the play without getting bogged down in superficial, overly clever connections: yes, it may be possible to set the Scottish play in an insane asylum, but does that actually expose new insight to Lady Macbeth’s madness?
This problem can grow even more difficult with Shakespeare’s comedies, which, let’s be honest, already strain at the boundaries of credulity. We put up with all the twins and cross-dressing and dubious friars not because we recognize their emotions, but for the pure joy of the author’s wit. The added nonsense of a modern context can put the entire endeavor on the verge of absurdism, and there are times when Joss Whedon’s sprightly, sexy version of “Much Ado About Nothing” seems about to burst from the sheer silliness of it all. Don Pedro and his compatriots brag of their prowess in war and Benedick occasionally flashes a gun, as if it’s the most normal thing in the world for the denizens of Santa Monica to challenge each other to pistols at dawn. This is barely even a coherent story any more, but Whedon’s nimble direction finds the common thread, like a particularly playful and fresh remix.
“Much Ado” may very well be one of Shakespeare’s slightest works (the title even admits about as much), and one of the problems of Kenneth Branagh’s 1993 film version was its stuffy luxury: by expending the same kind of lavish production on this trifling sex comedy that he did on “Henry V” and “Hamlet,” Branagh assigned too great import to a bunch of bumbling lovers. Whedon’s production, by contrast, has an appealing low-budget spontaneity. Filmed in a few short weeks at Whedon’s own California home, populated by close friends (many of whom have starred in Mr. Whedon’s previous film and TV efforts) and photographed in crisp black-and-white, there’s an inviting, intimate quality to this adaptation, like a particularly well-acted Shakespeare-in-the-park. The director chose this project as a palette-cleanser after the sound and fury of “The Avengers,” and it shows that much of the reasoning behind “Much Ado” was to have a big old Elizabethan party. Every once in a while a particularly wooden line reading or egregiously contrived set-piece exposes the film’s severe limitations, but on the whole Whedon remembers that the audience should be having as much fun watching the film as he had making it.
To that end, Whedon isn’t afraid of pulling out all the tricks of the Shakespearean guide to comedy. While TV shows like “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Firefly” proved that he has a great ear for banter, Whedon often doesn’t get enough credit for the physical comedy he draws from his actors. Such buffoonery is something of a lost art (especially in Branagh’s version), and this is where Whedon’s Beatrice (Amy Acker) and Benedick (Alexis Denisof) distinguish themselves. At this point there aren’t many hidden depths to explore from the “merry war” between the play’s sparring protagonists, but Acker still deserves to be remembered if only for one of the most dedicated pratfalls since Chaplin and Keaton graced the screen. And if Denisof can’t quite sell Benedick’s supreme lack of self-awareness in more dialogue-heavy scenes, he delivers a wonderfully oblivious performance in the film’s eavesdropping centerpiece.
And if Denisof and Acker can’t quite distinguish themselves from Emma Thompson and Branagh’s iconic takes on Beatrice and Benedick (far and away the best part of the ’93 version), it’s not entirely their fault either. Whedon’s direction is often nimble and clever in updating the play to modern sensibilities without sacrificing any of Shakespeare’s spirit – watch for how many scenes are filmed through windows and closed doors, or peering around corners, as if the camera were a shadowy guest at Leonato’s retreat – but he makes a peculiar choice to open the film that colors much of the fun of his lead couple’s jesting. While the play casually hints at a past courtship between Beatrice and Benedick, Whedon makes this history explicit with a silent scene showing Denisof fleeing Acker’s bedroom after a one-night stand. There’s something horribly explicit about this scene: the antipathy between these characters in the first half of the film becomes too personal. The battle between Beatrice and Benedick should be a quintessential, even-handed battle of the sexes: instead Beatrice comes off as simply bitter, chastising Benedick as a cad until suddenly the opportunity arises to regain his love.
Considering Whedon’s strong history with female leads, it seems odd that he would suddenly veer the play’s gender politics closer to “Taming of the Shrew.” I can only assume that this is one of those missteps of modernization, an attempt to insert a recognizable contemporary situation into a relationship that doesn’t need it. Shakespeare’s alluded romance kept his characters broad and relatable: assigning specific circumstances takes out the timeless quality of his writing.
Elsewhere, though, the comedy lives on: Nathan Fillion’s Dogberry is an amusing distraction amidst a film of nothing but amusing distractions, and Fran Kranz (“The Cabin in the Woods”) proves that being earnest doesn’t have to be dull. Other quality actors like Clark Gregg, Jillian Morgese and Reed Diamond do their best with relatively straight material, but Sean Maher (“Firefly”) might deserve the most praise for going above and beyond as the play’s villainous Don John. When Keanu Reeves played the role, the character’s inexplicable disappearance from the final act couldn’t come fast enough; slick, mysterious Maher, on the other hand, leaves you desperately lamenting the charlatan’s abrupt exit.
As entertaining counter-programming to the blustering blockbusters of summer, “Much Ado About Nothing” provides great company with its quality ensemble and stripped-down approach. There is little more to it than that, but then, that’s about how Shakespeare intended it. Sometimes we want tragedy and drama of monumental, shattering proportions; sometimes we just want an Elizabethan penis joke. Things never really change.
Verdict: 3 out of 4 stars