“Much Ado About Nothing”
Starring: Amy Acker, Alexis Denisof, Fran Kranz
Josh Whedon’s sophomoric attempt at swimming in Kenneth Brannagh’s waters of expertise — namely adapting Shakespeare plays to film — is akin to watching a wet cat lick itself dry. Curiosity succumbs to forced acting. Filmed in life-draining black and white, the acting approaches the level of a nearly competent community playhouse production. I take back everything bad thing I said about Lars von Trier’s “Dogville.” I’d take that stagey, theatrically bound movie any day over watching Whedon’s disastrous version of one of Shakespeare’s fluffier plays. The irony is that Whedon, with his comic book sensibilities, has reduced “Much Ado About Nothing” to a movie with a graphic-novel style of visual shorthand.
Transposing the 16th century play — set in Italy — to modern-day Southern California proves troublesome for Whedon, who uses his personal Santa Monica home as the staging area for the comic melodrama to unfold. Secondary characters blend into an inscrutable background of narrative white noise as Beatrice (Amy Acker) and her sworn enemy Benedick (Alexis Denisof) vie for one another’s romantic attention while in the company of many trouble-making naves.
“Much Ado About Nothing” is not one of Shakespeare’s better plays to begin with. Still, Kenneth Branagh did some fun and interesting things with his 1993 version. Branagh’s more experienced cast — which included Denzel Washington and Imelda Staunton — were undeniably better prepared to elevate the play, but there’s no diminishing Branagh’s influence as actor and director on his adaptation’s success.
Clark Gregg leads the cast — as Leonato — with his mastery of iambic pentameter. Sadly Jillian Morgese fails to make an impression as Leonato’s ripe-for-picking daughter Hero, whose amorous suitor Claudio resides under an equally callow spell cast by Fran Kranz. The filmmaker’s amateurish attempts at slapstick humor — as when characters eavesdrop on conversations — fall flat. The cast of television actors (see “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Angel” or “Firefly’) is simply not up to the task at hand.
The question that hovers over Joss Whedon’s half-hearted effort is why a comic-book-franchise director would challenge himself to such a self-evidently doomed proposition? Here is a rushed low-budget Shakespeare adaptation that compares poorly to the majority of other such movies. Remember Mel Gibson’s 1990 “Hamlet”? It’s pretty good. Or, what about Ethan Hawke’s 2000 take on the same play? Its experimental style is much more effective than the cloistered suburban world that Whedon attempts to pass off as some weird worm hole of America’s politically corrupt system.
Whedon bit off more than he could chew. Whatever — people make mistakes and move on. Perhaps he’s merely attempting to wean himself away from Hollywood comic-book blockbusters. If that is indeed the case — as I sincerely hope it is — then there’s a chance he might just discover a genre he is better equipped to develop and execute. Only time will tell. CV