I wonder how I would have liked Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing if I hadn’t known anything about it?
I wonder how I would’ve liked an adaptation of Shakespeare that features such a leisurely pace, airy scenes, limited world-building, and an uneven cast of (admittedly) some of my favorite actors? I wonder how I would’ve liked it had I not known the much-ballyhoo’ed backstory of the production, which saw Whedon use his contractually mandated “break” after principal photography on The Avengers to round up a posse of his regular players and shoot a coherent, tonally consistent modern-dress take on one of Shakespeare’s most popular comedies?
OK, enough of the rhetorical questions. Let’s get to it: I enjoyed Whedon’s Much Ado, even though it made me wonder how much more Whedon could’ve done with a full shooting schedule. But at the same time, I admired how ably the fan-favorite director was able to pull together the movie, given his resources.
There’s a larger conversation to be had here about context and how we evaluate movies. (I’ll most likely delve into that discussion when I review Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color.) I know I sound harsh when I use words like “leisurely,” “airy,” “uneven” and “limited” in association with Whedon’s Much Ado, but there’s no getting around the reality that any movie shot in 12 days is going to have some limitations. At the same time, Whedon’s movie has some virtues that would be remarkable for a movie with a hundred-day shooting schedule. I’ll talk about both.
First, let’s address its limitations, at least how I see ‘em:
Any director taking on Shakespeare has to make choices about what kind of world will surround the play. Typically, the first choices made are broad strokes: What era is it? What kind of costuming do we have? But after these broad strokes are made, the director then has to decide what props to use, who to cast, and how the players will interpret every line, beat and scene in the play.
That’s one of the joys of theater, and especially Shakespeare, for my money. Shakespeare affords artists so many wonderfully different ways to engage with and interpret the text. To be sure, legions of other dramatists — contemporary and classical — offer the same malleability of meaning, but I’m a particular sucker for Shakespeare.
Regarding Whedon’s Much Ado, there’s a limited quality to the world-building that doesn’t quite work for the entire story. Part of this is, again, a function of the production’s limited time and scope. Like I said before, I’m not trying to be a jerk, but Whedon didn’t release this as a workshop production or as a DVD extra. He and his fledgling production house, Bellwether Pictures, put it out as a full-on theatrical release, so I want to evaluate it as such.
That said, here are some examples of the movie’s limited world-building and its attendant side-effects:
• The war.
Much Ado’s storyline follows a bunch of veterans as they return from a war, but Whedon never once puts any of his player in military uniforms or shows any flashbacks to them in battle.
I suspect this was, once again, because of the brief shooting schedule and limited locations. (Whedon and his team shot the whole movie at his home in Los Angeles.) There wasn’t really a way for him to shoot any battle scenes, of course, but it might’ve helped to show the men of Don Pedro’s court in uniform when they arrive at the beginning.
(Side note: I also suspect that the decision to keep the men out of uniform was a deliberate one, made largely to preserve the movie’s persistently light tone. Kenneth Branagh had the advantage of a sunny 19th-century setting for his Much Ado, which allowed his men to wear their loose-fitting military uniforms — pretty much indistinguishable from the other characters’ casual attire — for most of the movie. Only at the beginning and end do we see Branagh’s male players wearing their double-breasted, Napoleonic military gear fully buttoned up.)
• Don John.
This one relates to the largely absent war, too, but what exactly is Don John’s station in the household in Whedon’s Much Ado world? At the beginning, we see him wearing zip-tie wrist-binds, but we get no sense of what authority Don Pedro has over him or anyone else.
• Who was the sexton supposed to be? A judge? A lawyer?
I loved Nathan Fillion’s Dogberry, and I’ll talk about how much I liked the choices surrounding this movie’s constabulary in a moment, but once again, the movie’s limited scope and world-building made the memorable interrogation scene in the jail feel a little muddled. Whedon chose to keep this scene in the makeshift police station — either a small guest house or maybe his laundry room — and while part of this choice worked to the scene’s advantage, it left me wondering who or what the sexton was supposed to be. Typically, the character is portrayed as a judge or magistrate of some kind, but I just didn’t get what she was supposed to be. (I know, I know — I’m nit-picking.)
Moving on, another limitation is:
A LEISURELY, AIRY PACE
Part of this criticism may stem from my longstanding affection for the play and the many excellent productions of it I’ve seen over the years. (I also bungled my way through a couple of productions of it as a very bad actor.) Of course, most geeks harbor an abiding love for the Branagh film, but the best version I ever saw was a 1998 version by the English (and now international) theater company Cheek by Jowl.
I don’t mean to start (or avoid) a larger conversation about the play’s production history, but one quality I’ve always admired about the Much Ado’s I’ve seen is a headlong pace, usually sparked by the play’s rowdy opening, which depicts the triumphant return of the men from war. By contrast, Whedon’s movie starts quietly and continues quietly. If you watched the American trailer for the movie, you’d have been led to expect a far livelier movie than Whedon delivered:
Contrast that with the international trailer, which better captures the movie’s pacing and tone:
Let me pause and stress: There’s nothing wrong with a laid-back movie. In fact, thinking back to the Cheek by Jowl production, I remember it being melancholy in tone with a fairly relaxed rhythm. (The company’s website says the dang thing ran 3 hours 40 minutes, so they must’ve padded out the proceedings to some degree.)
But in the case of Whedon’s Much Ado, the leisurely pace felt more like a side-effect of the limited shooting schedule, which resulted in a lot of long takes and very little cutting. In short, it felt less like a movie and more like a filmed stage production. See James Foley’s film of Glengarry Glenn Ross for another example of this kind of pacing. (That said, comparing Much Ado to Glengarry isn’t entirely fair because, of course, Foley had a full shooting schedule. He also had the advantage of shooting in color. Don’t get me wrong; I love black and white, but Foley’s take on David Mamet’s contemporary classic has a slightly more cohesive visual aesthetic than Much Ado, which seemed to be shot monochrome to save time, money and effort. Working with the full spectrum – and a lot more time – Foley and his cinematographer Juan Ruiz Anchía deliver a high-contrast, super-saturated, rainslick world that, although you can carbon-date it to the minute and second of its early 90s release, still feels appropriate for Mamet’s tale of middle-class malfeasance and stunted ambition.)
AN UNEVEN CAST
I can only imagine how this shoot unfolded, but if I had to guess, I’d say that Whedon asked all of his players to arrive at his home off book — and ready to play.
One of the benefits of a longer rehearsal (and shooting) schedule is the opportunity to get off book, own the words, and to really play and improvise with a story. Most of Whedon’s cast rise from the ranks of his many movies and TV projects, including a few welcome additions from The Avengers — fan-favorite Clark Gregg (Leonato) and relative newcomer Ashley Johnson (Margaret). (I feel silly calling Johnson a newcomer, given the dozens of credits to her name on IMDb, but she’s a fresh face to me; I hadn’t seen and recognized her in a movie until this and The Avengers.) Gregg and Johnson, along with most of the company, are light on their feet and at ease with the text. Strong performances abound: Alexis Denisof and Amy Acker find some refreshing notes as the legendary warring couple at play’s center, Benedick and Beatrice. (I liked the choice to play their opening argument in private instead of as a parlor show.) Meanwhile, Firefly alum Sean Maher underplays baddie Don John – a role that typically invites scenery-chewing. (See: Keanu Reeves.)
But a few of the performances didn’t quite pass muster for me:
Ross Diamond (Don Pedro). It pains me to single out The Shield’s Terry Crowley, because Diamond himself is an extremely talented performer, and I really liked seeing him tackle a comedic role. All the same, I couldn’t quite see what his Don Pedro was supposed to be. Was he a high-functioning alcoholic? (When he broke out tequila shots in the early morning after the play’s central masquerade ball, I figured that’s where he was going with it, but I was wrong.) Was he playing Don Pedro as a closeted gay man? (I’d seen that interpretation a couple times before, including in the ’98 Cheek by Jowl version.) I also found much of his delivery to be halting and uneasy. He just didn’t hit the ground running as well as some of his castmates.
Spencer Treat Clark (Borachio). I found his performance to be a little flat, and Borachio’s always played a little older in my mind than the babyfaced Clark, who’s 26. I also wasn’t overwhelmed with his fellow conspirator Riki Lindhome (Conrade), but I really liked the choice to play her as a woman who’s literally and figuratively in bed with the villainous Don John.
Fran Kranz (Claudio). You’ll find no greater fan of Kranz and his acting than me. I adored him in Dollhouse and Cabin in the Woods, but Claudio’s not a great part for him. (In his defense, I don’t think Claudio’s a good part for anyone. I mean, who wants to play a simpering, misogynistic dullard?)
IT’S TIME TO STOP COMPLAINING ABOUT THE SMALL STUFF AND TIME TO SING THE PRAISES OF JOSS WHEDON AND HIS REPERTORY COMPANY.
Frankly, I can’t believe this movie exists. For all of my grousing about Much Ado‘s limited world-building, the movie’s major notes all ring true. The black-and-white cinematography — shot on a RED camera, as I understand — looks gorgeous, and it’s an outrageous pleasure to see so many of Whedon’s — and by extension, our — favorite players in some of Shakespeare’s best roles. It’s hard for me to organize my thoughts, so I’ll offer a few bullet points:
• Despite my complaints about the omission of any military imagery, the movie’s lighthearted tone really clicks. I was joking earlier about Don Pedro being a high-functioning drunk, but in Whedon’s Much Ado, everyone’s a high-functioning drunk! The pervasive presence of daydrinking, wine and spirits throughout the movie — Beatrice even does a shot during her most intense scene — gives this the air of an extended party-weekend. Needless to say, that’s an appropriate choice for the play, and it makes me smile to think of Whedon and his rep company sipping wine while performing these great scenes after the big-budget mayhem of The Avengers.
• Despite my complaints about the movie’s limited world-building, Whedon and his team make many, many strong choices with the text. Let’s cut to the chase: I can’t think of many productions of Much Ado that have retained act 3, scene 4 — the pre-wedding scene with Beatrice, Margaret, Ursula and Hero — but Whedon wisely keeps it intact and uses it as an opportunity to peer deeper into Margaret’s character. A mild amount of hoopla was made about how Whedon handled the subplot of mistaken identity and infidelity. I didn’t quite see what all the fuss was about, but I did appreciate the care they took to make Margaret into a real person who got in over her head. Whedon’s expanded focus on Margaret also underlines the tension between the court and mechanicals in this play. (More on that in a moment.) Borachio, a member of the court, takes advantage of Margaret, who’s a few rungs below him on the social ladder. It’s an upstairs-downstairs conundrum for poor Margaret.
In addition, I loved the choice to play the constabulary as plainclothes detectives. Usually, Dogberry seems more like an escaped mental patient than a police officer, but by imagining the good-hearted old cop as a refugee from CSI: Miami, Whedon — along with geek demigod Nathan Fillion — were able to play Dogberry’s malapropisms as bluster instead of the symptoms of a future psychotic break. Fillion’s expansive, puffed-up Dogberry reminded me of The Sopranos’ Little Carmine (played by Ray Abruzzo), another character known for mangling the English language.
The CSI: Miami take on the cops also gave Tom Lenk a little more to play with. The line “Yea, by mass, that it is,” almost always a throwaway, became one of the big laughs of act 4, scene 2.
(Side note: I wish the cops had been a little more shabbily dressed, playing up the Starsky and Hutch-ness of the constables to further highlight their low standing in this world. Lenk played Verges with a cheesy cop ‘stache, so why couldn’t Dogberry have sported some muttonchops and his own soup strainer?)
Sorry I called it a “soup strainer.” Moving on:
Movies are harder to make than most casual fans realize, including me. As a critic, it’s easy to sit back and bellyache about movies as if they spring fully formed from the head of Hollywood without the combined efforts of hundreds — often thousands — of technicians, grips, PAs, actors, writers, directors and other creative professionals.
That Whedon and his team can deliver an adaptation of Shakespeare that feels so effortless, in spite of its shortcomings, is impressive. That they did it in 12 days is astonishing. Here’s hoping he spends his break after The Avengers 2 adapting another Shakespeare play for the screen. I happen to have one in mind:
MEASURE FOR MEASURE
Adapted for the screen and directed by Joss Whedon
Duke Vincentio: Anthony Stewart Head
Isabella: Allyson Hannigan
Angelo: James Marsters
Escalus: Ron Glass
Lucio: Nicholas Brendon
Juliet: Eliza Dushku
Mariana: Sarah Michelle Gellar
Provost: Chris Evans
Elbow: Adam Baldwin
Pompey: Alan Tudyk
Mistress Overdone: Scarlett Johansson