Friday, June 07, 2013

Whedonized Shakespeare: Much Ado About Nothing

Shall we compare Shakespeare to a superhero?  His work transcends time and space, after all.  No less an authority than Joss Whedon, the director of The Avengers, proves the point once again with his modernized yet still satisfying Much Ado About Nothing (trailer here), which opens today in New York.

As you really ought to know, Ado is a comic tale involving sibling rivalry, mistaken identity, and of course, love.  Don Pedro has just routed an insurrection led by his deceitful brother, Don John.  To enjoy the afterglow of victory, Don Pedro and his trusted lieutenants, the roguish Benedick and the earnest young Claudio, accept the hospitality of Leonato, the governor of Messina.   Don John also arrives with his brother.  They have supposedly buried the hatchet, but their truce is decidedly frosty.

In contrast, Benedick brashly presses his longstanding “merry war” with Beatrice, Leonato’s tart tongued niece. To mix Shakespearean quotations, Leonato and Don Pedro decide the sarcastic couple “doth protest too much” and secretly contrive to bring them together, like practical jokester cupids.  Benedick and Beatrice get all the play’s best lines, but the above-board romance between Claudio and Leonato’s daughter Hero supplies all the plot points.  As he instructs his remaining retainers, Don John would be quite pleased to see their happy union sabotaged, for the sake of his revenge and general mean spiritedness.

Shot during the twelve days in-between the filming and post-production of Whedon’s Marvel blockbuster, Ado is certainly a laid back affair, but it is still strikingly cinematic.  There might have been limited time for pre-production, but Whedon was fortunate to have a pretty polished script from William Shakespeare.  Maybe he found it on the “Black List.” Set entirely within Whedon’s real life home, designed by his architect wife and co-producer Kai Cole, this Ado updates the costumes and trappings to modern times, but wisely retains the Bard’s original language.  Essentially, Leonato and the Dons are politicians or gangsters.  Is there any difference between the two?  Either way, the wardrobe largely consists of dark suits, sun glasses, and ear pieces.

While Whedon’s modernization is a bit eccentric, Jay Hunter’s stylish black-and-white cinematography really helps sell it.  Frankly, Much Ado is one of Shakespeare’s most bullet-proof comedies, probably ranking just below Twelfth Night.  Nonetheless, Whedon’s game cast does not merely get by.  They have a genuine flair for the Shakespearean language.  Alexis Denisof and Amy Acker make a terrific Benedick and Beatrice. The audience will find themselves laughing at their zingers, which speaks volumes for their zesty delivery. 

Clark Gregg (the soon to be reincarnated SHIELD Agent Phil Coulson) also makes a solid Leonato, nicely conveying his mischievous and mature sides, while providing a familiar face for Whedon’s Marvel fans to latch onto.  Poor Hero is always the problematic part, but newcomer Jillian Morgese (an extra on The Avengers) gives her a bit of pluck and substance this time around.  As for good old Dogberry (here reinvented as the captain of the gated community’s rent-a-cops), Nathan Fillion truly hams it up, but that is exactly what he is supposed to do.

This is a genuinely entertaining movie that withstands comparison to Kenneth Branagh’s wonderfully elegant adaptation.  It is a different take, but the time-tested characters and text are the same, so it all works out quite swimmingly.  Recommended without reservation for fans of Shakespeare and Whedon, Much Ado About Nothing opens today (6/7) in New York at the Landmark Sunshine.