Much Ado About Nothing, under the helm of Joss Whedon, a steward whose better known at Comic Con than a Shakespeare Festival, delivers a thinned-out yet coherent story sans any palpable directorial insights. What you see is what you get in this cinematic scribble. Taking the title to its logically literal conclusion, there’s not much going on in this flimsy filmed adaptation, short of some fun ‘n fluffy performances and a nice musical montage. You know you’re watching something not too special when the star of the show falls to Constable Dogberry, performed punchily by Nathan Fillion. He owns the part, whereas some other cast members merely wear their personas. Riki Lindhome is downright terrible as Conrade; fortunately, she’s perfectly paired with Spencer Treat Clark as Borachio, who rises above slightly, but just looks so wrong and so out of place with the narrative that it’s rather embarrassing. Their combined lackluster performances allow the rest of the cast to shine with notable exception.
Particularly in control of the part of Leonato is Gregg Clark, the heir to the throne of Michael Moriarty. He’s impressive to watch and carries himself through the arc of the story and his own character changes with a genuine manner. Whedon’s comic book fans will remember Clark as Agent Phil Coulson in Iron Man. Also terrific in his role as Benedick is Alexis Denisof (again, Whedon aficionados will recollect Denisof as Alyson’s husband in Buffy the Vampire Slayer). His comic timing is reminiscent of the young-days of Kevin Kline. Playing opposite him in the classic love/hate relationship between Beatrice and Benedick is the deliciously memorable Amy Acker, who balances her sworn dismissal of love with her seemingly dumb manufactured acceptance of love in a modern woman way. The curiously convoluted contrasts between Denisof and Acker define the most compelling core of the story (as the relationship between Hero, played by Jillian Morgese, and Claudio, played by Fran Kranz, doesn’t really ever transcend the obvious).
And therein lies the rub: Much Ado About Nothing, being a classic story of love and manipulation, hate and humility, deceit and disgrace, and retribution and redemption, doesn’t really explore any themes that we don’t already know. This is a sparkless Spark Notes telling of a tale told much better by Kenneth Branagh. For a sizzling signature and penetratingly interpretive look at Shakespeare, there’s always Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo & Juliet. Conversely and perhaps deliberately, Whedon seems sincerely and hopelessly undevoted to the material and disconnected to any salience that might make Shakespeare resonate for the comic crowd. What he has done is suitably compressed the chronicle into a tasty snack, with a total running time of only 109 minutes. It’s Much Ado About Nothing Jr., aptly abridged to be watched in about as much time as it takes to flip through a really long graphic novel. The only sign of an active mind behind this movie morsel is the consciously composed black-and-white cinematography and a few oddly executed flashbacks (presumably to bring clarity to those who prefer shorter stories made up of graphics and word balloons). And for the same audience, Whedon peppered generous amounts of sexual innuendo into scenes that could’ve played tender. Then there’s more blatant sexuality added to make some encounters uncomfortably boring.
That the movie marches on without much fuss makes it all very watchable, though. The anecdotal backstory of the making of the film suggests why Whedon maybe didn’t fully commit his soul to the project: reports that he secretly shot the film in a dozen days on a shoestring budget in his Santa Monica home is both ambitious in work ethic and austere in philosophical depth. It was either make the movie or go on vacation. Reducing and distilling the movie down to its Shakespearean essence, Much Ado is worth noting — and that’s about it. With all the deceit strewn about as a recurring motif, certainly the grandest deception of this yarn is that the director didnt’t direct much of anything at all.
Opens at select theaters in the U.S. on June 7, 2013. PG-13
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