Shakespeare’s film career hit its pinnacle in the early 1990s when Kenneth Branagh directed superlative adaptations of some of his plays, including Henry V, Hamlet, Love’s Labour’s Lost, As You Like It and Much Ado About Nothing.
Branagh’s period version of Much Ado - in which he plays reluctant lover Benedick opposite then-wife Emma Thompson as equally resistant Beatrice - threatens to ignite the big screen with its simmering sexual tension. The production introduced Shakespeare’s witty interpretation of the war between the sexes to a wholenew audience. What a comeback!
Now comes Joss Whedon’s version of Much Ado, set in modern-day Santa Monica, Calif., and using Shakespeare’s original text to again tell the story of the complicated relationship between Beatrice (Amy Acker) and Benedick (Alexis Denisof ). The setting is Whedon’s house, a nice Chenal Valley-style space complete with shelves of Barbie dolls in the background of his young daughter’s room. But the director of the second Avengers film (coming in 2015) needn’t worry about any damage to his residence from fire or explosives. There are no sparks this time around.
It’s definitely not Acker’s fault. She’s the main attraction here, a vibrant, saucy presence who delivers Shakespearean language like she was born speaking it, snaps out wisecracks and insults with an insinuating smile, and can handle pratfall scenes with humor and grace. The best moments are when she’s onscreen by herself, pondering yet another unanswerable question about whether marriage is right for her.
B eatrice is at a welcome-back party for longtime antagonist Benedick, along with Don Pedro (Reed Diamond) and Claudio (Fran Kranz), who are returning from Italy, at the home of her Uncle Leonato (Clark Gregg). Other guests include Beatrice’s pretty young cousin Hero (Jillian Morgese) and a bunch of people with littleto do besides drink a lot of wine at all hours, exchange clever repartee, and scheme to destroy Hero’s reputation and thus her chances of marriage to Claudio, who’s smitten with her.
Underscoring the contemporary time frame is a scene with Benedick showing off his yoga and Pilates moves while verbally fencing with a baffled Beatrice, another with some cops - including malaprop-addled constable Dogberry (Nathan Fillion) - in suits, suspenders and stylish sunglasses, and an intriguing pool party with a pair of female aerialists entwining on a trapeze and a goggled Claudio alternately drinking a froufrou cocktail and snorkeling in the pool. That goofy image will stick with you long after his words fade.
The performances in the pool and elsewhere are competent, but they seem like they were recorded in a lonely sound booth (like voice talent for animated films) rather than while interacting on a set. There’s so little character definition in this low-budget black-and-white production that it’s hard to remember who’s who from one scene to the next. Romantic comedies, especially those of Shakespeare, benefit from strong personalities who absolutely own their roles. That’s not happening here. Where’s Branagh when we need him?
Much Ado About Nothing 80 Cast: Amy Acker, Alexis Denisof, Nathan Fillion, Clark Gregg, Fran Kranz, Reed Diamond, Jillian Morgese Director: Joss Whedon Rating: PG-13, for sensuality Running time: 106 minutes
MovieStyle, Pages 33 on 08/23/2013
Print Headline: Much Ado About Nothing