August 09 — August 15
Much Ado About Nothing
|Sat & Sun||2:00||5:00||7:15|
Unless otherwise noted, films begin on Friday and run through the next Thursday.
For many, Joss Whedon is an object of near-religious adulation, a “geek god” who brought critical respectability, massive profits, and mainstream acceptance to science fiction and comic book material. Whedon walked a difficult tightrope, creating television programs and movies that not only appeased diehard, cultish fans (the kind often derisively called “nerds”) but drew in wider audiences craving escapist fantasy with intelligence, wit, and depth of characterization—without sacrificing a sense of fun. In television, he created Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly, Angel, and Dollhouse; on the big screen, he produced and co-wrote The Cabin in the Woods, wrote and directed Serenity (based on the Firefly TV series) and recently helmed the monster worldwide hit The Avengers. Part of Whedon’s success comes from his imaginative gifts, which can relate to the fantasy world of children (he helped write Toy Story) and also empathize with the concerns of young adults. With Buffy the Vampire Slayer, he showed a keen understanding of teenagers, capturing the ironic flippancy sometimes used to hide genuine feeling, as well as the pop culture fluency and casual humor (punctuated by expert use of the throwaway joke). The Avengers really demonstrated Whedon’s touch, appealing to the comic book-loving child in every viewer while tweaking overly serious acceptance of men (and women) in tights. The result was a summer blockbuster that didn’t make us guilty for having fun at the movies. Whedon is a consummate entertainer, but he knows that mindless entertainment doesn’t offer much pleasure beyond the visceral excitement of loud explosions and careening movement. On one level, it seems odd for Whedon to tackle William Shakespeare: Whedon likes to surprise viewers by making entertainment much, much smarter than we expect it to be. He must have loved the challenge of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, knowing that people would initially avoid it because of the title and subject matter alone. And Whedon worked hard to make critics realize that Buffy was actually the smartest show on TV at the time. So now Whedon puts himself in quite a different position: moviegoers won’t have lowered expectations for the material—not for a critically-adored comedy from the Greatest Dramatist in the English Language™. With this movie, the audience’s expectations are focused on Whedon himself: how good is he at adapting Shakespeare, particularly when the play was filmed 20 years ago in a pretty-darn-good version by Kenneth Branagh? The good news, for Whedon fans and for everyone looking for a literate, truly witty comedy this summer, is that Much Ado About Nothing is an absolute delight. A labor of love for Whedon (but not a labor lost), the movie was made in about two weeks, filmed in black and white entirely on Whedon’s own estate, and performed by alumni from past Whedon projects. The approach is almost deliberately “casual,” as though Whedon wanted to assure viewers that he wasn’t going to overthink the play—which is meant to be frothy, light entertainment—or create a somber shrine to the Bard, full of period dress and historical accuracy. Whedon’s version is updated to present-day California, but the dialogue is straight from Shakespeare; the gimmick of having actors in modern clothes talk in Elizabethan verse has been done before, often to underline the timelessness of Shakespeare. Here, Whedon does it to show the timelessness of fun, wit, smart talk, and dumb behavior (especially where men and women in love are concerned). The deceptively offhand style catches the breeziness of Shakespeare’s classic comedy of errors, but Whedon and his gang of merrymakers put every ounce of passion and energy into bringing this entertainment to life. The performances are precise marvels of comic timing, emotional nuance, and expert handling of tonal shifts. The plot is simple: Leonato (Clark Gregg) hosts a welcome home party for Don Pedro (Reed Diamond); Claudio (Fran Kranz) woos Leonato’s daughter, Hero (Jillian Morgese), and during preparations for the impending nuptials, Don Pedro and Leonato play matchmaker for Benedick (Alexis Denisof) and Beatrice (Amy Acker), both outwardly disdainful of romance but harboring love for one another, which their pride won’t let them admit. The noblemen contrive a scheme to have Benedick and Beatrice overhear one another’s confessions of love, while Don Pedro’s despicable brother Don John (Sean Maher) plots to break up Claudio and Hero by spreading lies about her fidelity. Anyone who remembers high school can recall such misunderstandings and melodrama; classic screwball comedies of the ‘30’s knew just how funny it could be to watch smart, sophisticated adults act like hapless teenagers when it came to love. (That’s why romantic comedies of that era had stars like Cary Grant. Today, we make due with Ashton Kutcher.) Whedon’s use of black and white cinematography makes the connection between Shakespeare and ‘30’s screwball comedy explicit, and also highlights the witty, pun-filled banter. Even when Shakespeare’s dialogue is difficult for the modern viewer to parse exactly, the tone is so suggestive and conveys so much over-the-top duplicity and innuendo that it’s a joy to hear—and the meaning is easily understood just from the way it’s performed. Much Ado About Nothing is terrifically acted by a talented cast clearly having a ball—and the feeling of fun (with just the right touch of astringent seriousness on occasion) is infectious. Whedon has tirelessly worked to blend so-called “nerd culture” and mainstream entertainment; Shakespeare, too, valued not just wit and philosophizing but low comedy and outright silliness. The Bard surely would have appreciated the spectacle, humor, and audience-pleasing instincts of The Avengers; and Shakespeare undoubtedly would have enjoyed this fast-paced, ingratiating, and truly funny adaptation of his beloved comedy of romantic game-playing and deception—moviegoers looking for something both light and smart will have a great time, too.
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