Much Ado About Nothing

9 Jul

This is a movie review. I’m reviewing individual movies now. I don’t know how that will work. Sometimes when I waited until the end of the month I’d forget stuff or find I didn’t really have anything to say. Of course I could just write my little thing whenever and just publish the monthly thing at the end of the month, but why not just post them when they’re written? So that’s what I’m doing. Maybe I’ll write about books and stuff too.

Starting my individual movie reviews with Shakespeare makes me a bit nervous. I don’t know that much about Shakespeare. There is a better than usual chance that I’ll say something genuinely stupid. That’s a risk I’m willing to take for you, loyal reader.

Here’s what I did. I got a copy of the play from the library and I read it. Then I saw the movie. I did this for a couple reasons. First, I like to think of myself as the kind of guy who just sits down and reads Shakespeare sometimes. Second, I wanted to make sure that I knew what was going on so I didn’t miss anything in the movie. Third, I wanted to understand the play going in so I could have a more intelligent opinion of the movie. Having read the play, I’d highly recommend it. It’s the shortest and easiest of the Shakespeare plays that I have read. I don’t know why this isn’t the work that high school kids start out on. It seems like such an easier entry point than Romeo and Juliet or MacBeth or whatever. I had a pretty bare bones version and I don’t think I missed on too much obsolete vocabulary etc. I also read the SparkNotes, which was kind of a dumb idea. It did illuminate a couple very minor things that I missed, but the analysis was basic and was obviously directed at high schoolers. I’m no scholar of the theater or anything, but I declare myself above the level of analysis of plays offered for free on the internet.

So now I’m going to talk about the actual movie. I thought it was good and I liked it. Is that insightful enough? Here is some film criticism that will probably be boring and reductive for people who know a lot about Shakespeare stuff.

The director is Joss Whedon. The movie is in black and white. Here’s the origin story as I understand it: Mr. Whedon had a contractually-mandated two week break between principal photography and editing of The Avengers. He decided to get some actors he knew/liked together at his house and shoot this movie. His wife was the production designer. I think this is a really cool idea and I would like it if more Hollywood big shots did interesting things like this.

The problem with a modern-dress Shakespeare adaptation is the obvious incongruity between now and Elizabethan England. One of the things about which much ado is made in the play is the virginity of Hero. In Shakespeare’s time, for a bride to not be a virgin was a family-ruining catastrophe. Not so much anymore. In fact, for the events of this play to happen in 2013 would be laughable and ludicrous. So as a viewer, you just have so accept the world of the play as it’s presented and not ask questions. That’s fine. The question for the director, then, is how faithfully do you try to stay in that world? The opening scene of the movie is Benedick leaving Beatrice’s room after, presumably, acts of sexual congress have taken place. This of course is not in the play. There are two ways to look at this: a) the whole sexual atmosphere of the play is outdated and ridiculous and the audience doesn’t really take it seriously as a realistic plot point anyway so who cares, or b) how dare anyone insert anything not in the original play and furthermore it’s totally incongruous with the Hero/Claudio situation so farts! I incline more to position (a). Plus there’s a whole thing here where Mr. Whedon makes Conrade into a girl who is having some kind of hanky-panky with Don John, which I thought was interesting and a little twist on the original that I liked.

A further note on this play and sex and class. It’s a huge disaster if Hero isn’t a virgin. When everyone finds out it was Margaret and not Hero getting down with Borachio, no one seems to care. I guess the servants can fuck whoever they want. I wonder if they were expected to get married.

I was surprised and impressed with the actors playing Benedick and Beatrice. They’re at the center of most of the play’s humor or wit or whatever. On the page that doesn’t really translate to actual laughs, more like, “Oh that’s clever I get why that would have been hilarious in 1598.” But there were several places where this movie was truly and legitimately funny, even though I knew exactly what was going to be said. Credit also due to Mr. Whedon, who did a good job of setting up all of the scenes where things get overheard. He did it in a way that was just a little goofy and tongue-in-cheek but not slapsticky or dumb. I wasn’t expecting that.

More on the acting. I thought it was uniformly good. I don’t know much about this kind of acting. These are mostly people from Mr. Whedon’s various TV shows, which are not what I would think of as breeding ground for Shakespeare-level chops. In addition to Alexis Denisof and Amy Acker as Benedick and Beatrice, I thought Clark Gregg was good as Leonato and Reed Diamond was good as Don Pedro. Two small parts of note: Tom Lenk as Verges and Riki Lindhome as Conrade. A lot of the Dogberry/Watch stuff didn’t translate as well as the rest of it for me. I thought Nathan Fillion was fine, but that’s one place where the language made it hard to keep up. When you’re making jokes out of malaprops on words no one uses they’re easy to miss. The physical stuff they did was very good, and Mr. Lenk was the best part of that for me. Ms. Lindhome is, as mentioned earlier, a Ms., not a Mr., playing a part that’s written as a man. She hardly has any lines, but she did a lot just by looking sardonic or sarcastic or cynical or like a bored teenager in the background. Ms. Lindhome is also better-known as Garfunkel of Garfunkel and Oates. They have funny songs.

There wouldn’t seem to be much room for creativity in a production like this, but the party scenes and a couple of the other scenes were staged really well. The acrobat stuff at the costume party was cool. The masks were as cool as they could be. (The costume party conceit is another thing that’s ridiculous on its face and you have to ignore.) The shot of Claudio in the pool with the snorkel and martini glass was a cool little visual that came out of nowhere. I also liked how all the guys wore suits all the time. That’s a cool look. We all take it for granted that that’s normal, but men constantly wearing suits in movies and on TV is quickly becoming highly odd. No one wears suits anymore. The most notable example I can think of is The Office. Are we to believe that office drones in Scranton wear suits to work every day? No chance.

Joss Whedon has a really nice house.

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