Monday, February 9, 2015

Picks from Chip: Much Ado About Nothing

Film: Much Ado About Nothing
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on rockin’ flatscreen.

This is the second in a series of twelve films suggested by Chip Lary at Tips from Chip.

I’m guessing it’s fun to be Joss Whedon. Sure, the Avengers stuff is all fun and everything, but there’s a certain freedom he appears to have in choosing some projects. Much Ado About Nothing, a modernized version of Shakespeare’s play in all but language, appears to have been made with a bunch of alums from other Whedon projects. “Hey, gang! Let’s do Shakespeare!” As fitting Whedon’s sensibilities, this is one of Billy the Shake’s comedies. That does make me want to see him tackle something like MacBeth, though.

I should probably mention that modern retellings of Shakespeare don’t always work for me. Kept in the classic style, I buy the language. Keep the language the same but modernize everything else, and there’s a part of my brain that objects. I’d be lying if I said that didn’t happen here, at least for the first chunk of the film. I had trouble accepting a modern setting with the style of speech. Eventually it worked for me, though, but it was a struggle for me for the first 20 minutes.

Much Ado About Nothing is a comedy, which means in the world of Shakespeare that it’s also a romance and we’re going to end with everyone we want to get married getting married and any bad guys captured and being held for trial. That’s the whole point of a Shakespearean comedy. The good guys get happily married no matter how much they protest against it and the villains end up paying for their misdeeds. We know that going in, so it’s really all about the getting there that makes the trip worth it.

Here’s the quick set up. Don Pedro (Reed Diamond) is returning to…wherever (it’s Messina in the play) from battle. Here he is greeted by Leonato (Clark Gregg), ruler of…wherever. Actually, that’s never really made totally clear. Based on the suits and guns, it kind of feels like these guys are a crime family, not city rulers. Anyway, one of Don Pedro’s companions, Claudio (Fran Kranz) is immediately smitten by Leonato’s daughter Hero (Jillian Morgese). This comes as great sport to another of Pedro’s men, Benedick (Alexis Denisof), who has sworn off marriage.

Part of Benedick’s dislike of women comes from his constant battles with Beatrice (Amy Acker), Leonato’s niece. The two are constantly insulting each other to the point where it’s easy to assume there’s actually a level of attraction there. With a little difficulty, Hero and Claudio end up engaged, and the group decides it’s only right and fitting that Benedick and Beatrice become a couple as well, and they conspire to make it happen.

Ah, but the monkey in the wrench is Don John (Sean Maher), bastard brother of Don Pedro. Don John is a classic Shakespearean villain. He does bad things to people not for personal gain but because he likes doing bad things to people. He wants to kill everyone’s buzz and conspires with his people (Spencer Treat Clark and Riki Lindhome) to make Claudio believe that Hero is giving it up to another man, a ploy which both Claudio and Don Pedro fall for. And now that Beatrice and Benedick have become an item, Beatrice demands that Benedick kill Claudio to avenge her cousin’s besmirched honor.

Again, we know it’s all going to come out right in the end. Somehow, some way, Claudio and Hero will end up together and so will Beatrice and Benedick. Don John will be captured and eventually punished, but this is a comedy and we’re not going to see that happen. Because this is a comedy, much of the plot against Claudio and Hero will be unraveled by the purely comic characters of the security team (the city watch in the play) led by Dogberry (Nathan Fillion), the slow-witted constable.

My biggest issues here came at the start. It took me a few minutes to attune myself to hearing 16th century language coming out of the mouths of people holding guns and wearing modern suits. Once I adjusted to it, though, I was able to buy into the production and I enjoyed it quite a bit. Whedon manages to modernize a great deal of the story, adding in nice pieces of humor and, more or less, creating something like a modern sensibility. There’s humor here from how particular scenes are shot that isn’t necessarily in the original production or script, and that works really well. For instance, when Hero and Ursula (Emma Bates) conspire to make Beatrice believe that Benedick loves her, Beatrice takes a beating from falls, bumps, and household objects trying to overhear the conversation. It’s fun stuff.

I also like the decision to film in black and white. This would have worked well in color, too, but I always appreciate a lustrous black-and-white film when it’s done well, and this is.

So, after a slow start, I ended up enjoying it. Good call, Chip. You’re 2 for 2.

Why to watch Much Ado About Nothing: A fun version of a fun comedy.
Why not to watch: If you aren’t attuned to Shakespearean language, you might have trouble following parts of it.


  1. I loved this movie -- and I generally find "Much Ado" to be borderline insufferable. Perhaps it's because Whedon and Co treat it as fluffy as it is.

    Interesting that you don't like modernized version of Shakespearean plays -- I always found that they tend to underline the timelessness of the stories. Then again, I think the most successful ones use a modern setting (such as setting the Ian McKellen "Richard III" in WWII era -- and yes, I know this is the second time in so many comments I've mentioned this film) to highlight themes in the play.

    - Nolahn

    1. It's not close to my favorite Shakespeare. I tend to like his histories the best. Okay, I tend to like the Henry IV and V plays as well as some of the tragedies. The comedies are all pretty fluffy and a lot of them are really the same. There's some truth in the idea that the adaptation plays more into the enjoyment of a story like this than the actual story.

  2. I also really like this film, and I wouldn't say that I'm completely enamored by hearing Shakespeare dialogue in modern settings. I agree that the choice to use black and white was very smart. Some of the scenes are gorgeous, especially the party. What I love is just how much fun so many are having, especially Acker and Denisof. I also like seeing so many actors from Firefly, Angel, and other Whedon shows together and playing different roles. It works a lot better than I expected!

    1. The party is really spectacular, and it's one of those scenes where I think we'd not have something better to look at in color. That's rare, and it's a great reason for using black-and-white when it's warranted.

  3. I, on the other hand, found this version to be fgenerally a poor substitute for other options. This is primarily due to poor casting of Benedick. Alexis is flat and uninspired. I like most of the others, and the choice of casting the Conrade character as a woman, and making the Borachio character have a thing for Hero was inspired and helps explain some actions of the characters. Without a strong Benedick, however, it just didn't work. The 1993 Branagh version is superior in pretty much every way.

    1. He may be the weakest of the main performances, but I didn't have an issue with him at all.

      I haven't seen the Branagh version. It wouldn't shock me if his was better--I like his Henry V and Hamlet the best of the versions I've seen.

  4. I'm glad you liked it. I loved the party scene and I agree shooting it in black and white really makes it work. I really liked the jazzy version of Hey Nonny Nonny. I also really liked them switching up the gender on the henchman (henchwoman?). The one thing I didn't like was Whedon making Benedick and Beatrice already have a sexual relationship at the beginning of the film. Whedon says he was intentionally giving a "biblical interpretation" to a line from the play where one says of the other that they "knew" them of old. To me it watered down the romance that they are fighting against later on.

    I didn't know about the Shakespearan dialogue thing with you in modern adaptations. I picked it because I know you like Shakespeare. A heads up on Brick is warranted because I compare it to a modern version of Shakespeare. Brick is a modern film, except the dialogue is right out of the 1940s and it's coming out of the mouths of teens. Think the DiCaprio/Danes version of Romeo and Juliet as a comparison.

    For years Whedon has had get togethers at his house on the weekends and people from his shows, past and present, would come and they'd do readings of certain scenes or acts from Shakespeare. He was going to take a vacation and his wife convinced him to make this movie with the time and money they would have spent traveling somewhere. It was shot at his own house and he says that when he and his wife bought the place it was with half an eye to having areas to hold their weekend readings and get a little more active.

    I've seen the Branagh version a couple of times. Whedon's Benedick/Beatrice pairing was both more comedic and more serious. You mentioned the broad comedy when they are trying to overhear their friends. On the other end of the spectrum, I felt Whedon had Beatrice stronger than Branagh with her "Oh if I were a man" scene. Branagh went for a lot of familiar faces and color-blind casting (i.e. Denzel Washington as Don Pedro and Keanu Reeves as his brother Don John.) Branagh cast himself as Benedick and his then wife Emma Thompson as Beatrice. It's definitely worth seeing, if you like the story. For me, the main reason I like the Branagh version is the Benedick/Beatrice storyline. Whedon on the other hand, made me interested in a lot of the smaller characters, too.

    1. I agree on the Beatrice/Benedick sexual relationship. So much is made of Hero's virtue that it comes off as intensely hypocritical that Beatrice is acknowleging her own sexual liaisons without so much as a care in the world about anyone's opinion.

      The mismatch of dialogue and time can work; it generally takes me a little while to adjust to it. This was a case of that. I should honestly probably go back and watch the opening again, because that mental disconnect sometimes takes me a little time to bridge. Typically, if were moving into territory where we change the time and location of the original script, I'm more a fan of adapting the story rather than a straight reading of the script. Think Throne of Blood or even Forbidden Planet where the story is basically the same but little to none of the dialogue remains.

      I probably should track down the Branagh version. He does Shakespeare pretty well in general.

    2. I teach this play each year to my AP lit kids. I have 3 different versions on video if you want them; the Branagh, the Whedon, and a BBC retelling in modern language and set on a TV Show (Benedick is the sports reporter, Hero the young weather girl, etc...). Any are yours for the viewing.