May 31, 2013

Joss Whedon's Latest Is Truly MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING #IFFB


"When I said I would die a bachelor, I never thought I would live to be married."
During my freshman year of college, I had a required non-credit course called Playreading Aloud in which a a bunch of hungover theater majors (the class was held Friday mornings and for most of us it was the only class of the day) were gathered together to simply read classic plays out loud with no preparation.  I think the idea was to get us comfortable with the cold readings while simultaneously making sure we were all familiar with a basic theater curriculum.  Nobody took the class very seriously since there were no grades and no homework and while it certainly made for some entertaining moments here and there, the "performances" never went beyond the basic words on the page.  It wasn't really the kind of thing I'd make an audience sit through.

That basically sums up Joss Whedon's Much Ado About Nothing.

Full disclosure: I love me some Whedon.  I discovered Buffy The Vampire Slayer in the seventh grade and while I admit that I was lured in because Sarah Michelle Gellar is really hot, I stuck around because the writing totally blew me away.  Whedon's ultra-clever patter falls squarely in my wheelhouse along with the likes of Aaron Sorkin or David Mamet..  And as maddening as it can be at times (coughSERENITYcough) I have to respect the guy's penchant for abruptly killing off beloved main characters.  It's a ballsy maneuver that most writers/showrunners rightly approach with great trepidation, but the feeling that no one is safe creates an atmosphere of real danger that most films/TV shows lack.  I know there are those that find his directing style to be flat and uninspired, but it's never really bothered me one way or another.  I heard plenty of complaints that Serenity looked "cheap", but The Avengers certainly proved that the guy can handle scope.  The battle of New York is a fight for the fate of the entire world that's confined to a few city blocks and yet it feels like one of the most epic sequences in any comic book film to date.

Back to Much Ado.  The whole movie was essentially a lark for Whedon.  He filmed it in his own home over the course of 12 days while he was in post for The Avengers.  It seems that Whedon frequently holds informal readings with some of his favorite actor friends, similar to my ill-scheduled college class, and Much Ado was conceived directly from these get togethers.  Thusly, the cast is made up almost entirely of familiar faces from Whedon's myriad of past television and film projects, save for newcomer Jillian Morgese who Whedon apparently "discovered" while she was doing Avengers background work.  Morgese and her onscreen love interest Fran Kranz were both in attendance at the IFFB screening and in the Q&A afterwards Kranz admitted that the low-key production was so fast that they never really got the chance for any full blown rehearsals.

Unfortunately it shows.  Alexis Denisof's Benedick is shallowness personified - not the character, but the performance itself.  He's all awkward posturing and cartoonish facial expressions.  It reeks of someone who's being asked to perform Shakespeare's rich language on the fly and therefore never gets beyond the simplest surface reading of the text.  It certainly doesn't help that he's tragically over-matched by Amy Acker's complex and engaging Beatrice.  Unlike Denisof, she's able to convey heaps of emotion with the slightest of glances.  Beatrice feels like a real person, while Benedick is a caricature at best, which makes their eventual pairing all the more baffling.  The trio of villains played by Sean Maher, Riki Lindhome and Spencer Treat Clark (a.k.a. Bruce Willis's kid from Unbreakable) simply don't work and make next to no sense, arriving in handcuffs and immediately being allowed to roam Leonato's house unaccompanied for no particular reason.  Reed Diamond and Clark Gregg each have some excellent moments between them while Kranz and Morgese make the best of their anachronistic love story.  (It's hard at times not to feel like Leonato is essentially selling off his daughter to a friend of a friend and it's more than a little off-putting in the modern setting.)  From a comedy perspective, Nathan Fillion and Tom Lenk unsurprisingly kill as constables Dogberry and Verges.  Their completely inept attempts at interrogation produce some of the film's funniest moments that don't involve people throwing themselves down stairs while attempting to eavesdrop.  Extra kudos to Lenk, whose ratio of laughs to lines of dialogue is probably the most lopsided (in a good way) of anyone in the cast.

But despite its modest entertainment value, I walked away from the movie with a bad taste in my mouth, feeling like the whole thing was just a tremendous missed opportunity.  Don't get me wrong, I love that Whedon is willing to do down and dirty projects like Dr. Horrible seemingly on a whim, but Much Ado just feels like a bunch of friends half-assing it in Whedon's amazing Santa Monica home.  If the script had been a Whedon original, or even his own adaptation of Shakespeare's story, that might fly.  But you just can't phone in Shakespeare.  The results lack any kind of depth and don't bring anything new to the table, either for the script or for Whedon himself.

At the same time, I wonder if that really matters for this film.  Our theater was packed with die-hard Whedonites (including one girl who was inexplicably dressed like Kaylee from Firefly) who would audibly squee with excitement whenever another member of Joss's familiars showed up.  The audience was just happy to see one of their favorite faces on the screen and let their brains connect the dots back to whatever Whedon character the actor had previously portrayed.  I'm therefore forced to ask: is this movie ever going to be seen by an audience that isn't stacked in Whedon's favor?  The film will get a limited release that will expand in the coming weeks, but it almost certainly won't be playing at your local AMC multiplex.  It is, after all, a black and white Shakespeare adaptation starring a collection of largely unfamiliar TV actors.  The only real star power driving the film is Whedon himself.  Granted his fans are the kind that are willing to go out of their way to seek out his latest opus, but will anyone else?  And if the answer is no, then maybe it's fine that Whedon is essentially preaching to the converted here.  By all accounts, he and his friends had a blast shooting the movie and I'm sure that most of his acolytes will enjoy the movie well enough.  I wish I could count myself among them, but this is easily my least favorite of his projects to date.  (Season one of Dollhouse is probably a bigger creative misstep, but at least it's redeemed by a top notch second season.)

That's not to say Much Ado About Nothing was a wholly unenjoyable experience.  I admit that I laughed heartily throughout the movie, but in the end it tragically lives up to its title - a tale told by a decent director, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

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Title: Much Ado About Nothing
Director: Joss Whedon
Starring: Amy Acker, Alexis Denisof, Fran Kranz, Jillian Morgese, Reed Diamond, Clark Gregg, Nathan Fillion, Riki Lindhome, Sean Maher, Tom Lenk
Year Of Release: 2013
Viewing Method: Independent Film Festival Boston