MRR Review: "Much Ado about Nothing"

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A modern retelling of Shakespeare's classic comedy about sparring lovers Beatrice (Amy Acker) and Benedick (Alexis Denisof), this romantic comedy drama offers a dark, sexy and occasionally absurd view of the intricate game that is love. Written, directed and produced by Joss Whedon.
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MRR Review: "Much Ado about Nothing"

-- Rating: PG-13 (some sexuality and brief drug use)
Length: 107 minutes
Release Date: June 7, 2013
Directed by: Joss Whedon
Genre: Comedy/Drama/Romance

Joss Whedon's "Much Ado about Nothing" is a marvelous encore to a late 1590s Shakespearean comedy. Although set in modern times, the movie stays true to William Shakespeare's vision. Whedon displays his talent for drollness by employing Shakespeare's slapstick and prop comedy with fresh zeal. Around the year 1600, people had no choice but to use stage gimmicks and exaggerate their own bodily movements to bring raucous hilarity to the stage. Whedon uses the same classic ploys to coax his audience into the spirit of his movie, flaunting an impressive sense of comedy. While it is true that "Much Ado about Nothing" contains some of the wittiest dialogue in all of Shakespeare's works, Joss Whedon and his cast do not lazily rely upon the clever banter. They each bring their own skills to the set.

The play begins in Messina, an enchanting Italian town. Kind-spirited and wealthy Leonato (Clark Gregg); his young daughter, Hero (Jillian Morgese); and his man-hating niece, Beatrice (Amy Acker), are excitedly awaiting their friends who are soldiers riding in Prince Don Pedro's (Reed Diamond) retinue and are returning from war. The friends are Signor Benedick (Alexis Denisof), a confirmed bachelor with a strong dislike for women, and a young but accomplished and respected soldier named Claudio (Fran Kranz). In Whedon's version, the Prince is instead an important politician who is returning from a covert mission. The setting is in Whedon's California home.

During the course of the visit, Hero and Claudio fall in love with each other and decide to wed. Meanwhile, Benedick and Beatrice throw smart, amusingly hateful barbs at one another, as is their habit. What is, perhaps, Shakespeare's most cleverly written dialogue is masterfully volleyed back and forth between Acker and Denisof. It is a pleasure to watch the chemistry between the two actors. Caught up in the frivolity of the visit, Don Pedro, Claudio, Leonato, and Hero conspire to trick Beatrice and Benedick into falling in love. Hardly any doubt exists that everyone senses the sexual tension rising around the passionate pair of cynics, so skillfully portrayed by Acker and Denisof.

Beatrice and Benedick become the central figures in the movie, which is inevitable in any version of the play. The insults they hurl at one another are alluringly scathing. In Kenneth Branagh's 1993 version of "Much Ado about Nothing," he and the ever-talented Emma Thompson stole the show. Their portrayals of Beatrice and Benedick were unrivaled, even by Acker and Denisof. Thompson and Branagh did have advantages, though. Thompson was already a well-seasoned actor, Branagh directed the movie, and the two of them were married at the time.

After a fair amount of well-intentioned manipulation and lighthearted trickery, Beatrice and Benedick are convinced of their undying love for one another. However, in true Shakespearean form, a dark cloud befalls the festivities when Don Pedro's illegitimate brother, Don John (Sean Maher), aspires to stop the wedding by convincing Claudio that Hero has been unfaithful to him. The ensuing drama surrounding Hero's virginity is one area where Shakespeare's ideas are grossly outdated. Whedon proves that the emotions stirred by Shakespeare's works are timeless, however. The wedding is not stopped merely by a lack of Hero's chastity. Although it is an issue, infidelity is a behavior that withstands the test of time.

Fortunately, Shakespeare's comedies have ways of seeing the characters through their troubles and without anyone actually dying. Claudio and Hero are finally reunited. A welcome form of reprieve during Hero's misfortune is Dogberry (Nathan Fillion). Dogberry is an idiotic security guard who always has his assistant (Tom Lenk) in tow. The character of Dogberry, however, differs from Shakespeare's depiction of the boisterous buffoon. Fillion plays Dogberry as a soft-spoken character, which causes a goofy, subdued kind of humor. It is never quite clear which of the two is going to steal the scene whenever the security guard and his cohort are around.

Joss Whedon and the entire cast are a joy to watch. The cast is comprised of actors who have worked together a great deal in the past. Note that Whedon filmed "Much Ado about Nothing" at his house in only twelve days while taking a break from the shooting of "The Avengers." To make the movie, Whedon simply invited friends to his home to act out the parts. Whedon had no budget to speak of. Furthermore, his idea to shoot the film in black and white was inspired. When all of the facts are brought forth, Whedon's genius can truly be appreciated.

Rating 4 out of 5