Monday, July 1, 2013

Movie Review: Much Ado About Nothing

It is important to remember that Much Ado About Nothing was written in the 16th Century. During that earlier time, the word “Nothing” was often used interchangeably with “Noting” … a term which could hold a wide variety of meanings that are not well known in modern society.

* Small talk

* Petty or malicious gossip

* A willingness to listen in on conversations which the participants believed were private

So there is indeed a lot of “Nothing” going on in William Shakespeare's 1599 play. The entire story spins on a nexus of “who said this” and “who heard that”. All of it unfolding in a manner which brings about both silly humor and heart wrenching tragedy.

As adapted and directed by Joss Whedon, the story takes place in a world which appears rather similar to our 21st Century but which seems to have none of our modern day aircraft. This means that a journey of more than a thousand miles will take at least a handful of days to complete.

Being a part of the island of Sicily, the Province of Messina is currently under the control of the state of Aragon. Prince Pedro of Aragon (Don Pedro) has been engaged in a lengthy diplomatic mission far away from home. As he and his associates make their way back towards Northern Spain, their motorcade pauses at the villa of Leonato, the Governor of Messina. Having not seen his old friend for a number of months, Leonato invites the Prince and his traveling companions to stay with him for a period of several days.

This pause in their traveling is good news for some and inconvenient timing for others. The young Count Claudio is quite pleased by the opportunity to spend a bit more time in the company of the lovely maiden Hero, the only child of Leonato. For her part, Hero seems just as happy to learn that Claudio's travels have brought him back in her direction. On the other side of the issue, Hero's cousin Beatrice will not cease in her assertion that the travelers would have been just as welcome to continue on their journey and pass right by Leonato's estate.

While quite happy to see Don Pedro and most of his associates, the woman has an incredibly sharp tongue when it comes to any discussion of (or with) Sir Benedick. The man is an officer in the employ of the Prince and it appears that Benedick and Beatrice have a bit of past history. The two of them constantly demonstrate a willingness to allow the events of yesteryear to intrude upon their present day behavior.

The final traveler of note is Don John (The Bastard Prince). John is the younger half brother of Prince Pedro and it would appear that their father's marriage to his mother was a ceremony which was not given approval by the local Bishop. As such, he has always been the black sheep of the clan. A designation which he has taken to heart and allowed to influence his actions.

As the story begins, John and Conrade (his sultry lady friend) are shown to be in handcuffs. The diplomatic party has just made its way to friendly soil and the two of them are finally allowed to cast off their shackles and move about freely. While the scene plays out, the viewer is left to infer that John may have gotten into trouble in some foreign land. Which could well be the reason why Pedro and his associates have found it necessary to make this time consuming journey. Whatever the truth of the past might be, the truth of the present is that John and Conrade are not the least bit rehabilitated. Given the slightest opportunity, the two of them are perfectly happy to stir the trouble cauldron again and wait to see what might spring from it.

Whedon has done a marvelous job of taking this 450 year old tale of whimsy and heart break and transplanting it into a 21st Century setting. I wish I could congratulate the man for doing a perfect job, but there are a few small instances where I feel he should have gone in a slightly different direction.

On the positive side, the casting of Riki Lindhome as Conrade was a stroke of absolute genius. By changing the gender and making the character a very attractive female, and by allowing her to be the attention demanding lover of Don John, Whedon has opened up a new dimension in the relationship between the two malcontents. Mischief is the most basic type of foreplay for this pair. They whisper ideas of it to each other during intimate moments. They casually conspire to create trouble in much the same way as an average couple would plan an evening at the theatre. They find great entertainment in observing the fruits of their efforts as the vines unfurl and reveal their bitter grapes.

The downside to placing Riki in this role is that Whedon did not make the necessary adjustments in the script to compensate for the role reversal. During the course of the film, the character is constantly referred to as Master by those around her. This is actually quite humorous when she and Borachio are being interrogated by Dogberry and the other members of the inept Constabulary. Yet it becomes painfully grating when the term is being used by household servants (or party guests) who are calling her Master while properly referring to Beatrice and Hero by a correct term such as Maiden, Mistress or Milady.

Taking a second look at the Constabulary, Whedon missed a fine opportunity to show the modern day audience what these individuals were initially intended to parody. In the scripting of Dogberry and his associates, Shakespeare had his eye trained on what the people of our 21st century would commonly refer to as a “Neighborhood Watch Organization”. And it is quite clear that he held them in no greater esteem than much of present day society feels for the “Citizen Councils” or “Local Militias” that we often find existing near us. 

Contrary to how things might appear, Dogberry is not a professional police officer. He is a common citizen who has been drafted by the local government and forced to perform the task of Security Officer for a period of about two weeks each year. These are the men who could not scrape together the few coins necessary to be able to buy their way out of the obligation. They have little or no training and they are utterly ill equipped for the task of conducting a proper investigation of the events which are unfolding around them. The fact that Dogberry and his associates are able to expose the plot of Don John is a testament to the fact that Luck has found reason to turn its back on John and smile on almost everyone else.

The insertion of a couple of lines could have made the predicament of Dogberry much clearer to the modern day viewer. And I'm quite certain that, if a list were compiled of people who could properly fake Shakespeare, Whedon would very near the top of the names. The fact that he did not take this opportunity to slightly tweak the script causes me to feel that he failed somewhat in the task of helping the story fit the needs and expectations of the modern audience.

Having taken my nit picks, Much Ado About Nothing is one of the best films I've seen this year. In no small way, this is due to the casting. Each performer is flawless in their part. Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof can be absolutely gut busting as Beatrice and Benedick, then effortlessly transition to heart wrenching when the mood of the story changes.

Nathan Fillion is hilarious as Dogberry.

Clark Gregg stepped in at short notice, after Anthony Head became unavailable for the part. You'd never begin to think he was Whedon's second choice for the role.

My most enjoyed bit of acting comes from Jillian Morgese as Hero. The girl begins the film as a cute young Tom Boy … attractive yet unpolished. She's always believed that her cousin Beatrice was the pretty one in the family. When it becomes clear that Claudio wishes to have her as his mate, the young woman's confidence begins to blossom. Once Hero allows herself to believe that she is as attractive and desirable as Beatrice, her beauty quickly begins to rival that of Beatrice.

From acting … to directing … to camera work … to lighting … I'll happily cite Much Ado About Nothing as a prime example of how solid storytelling can triumph over exotic locations and expensive special effects. Produced on a budget that could be rivaled by ten dollars and a bicycle spoke, the movie is absolutely enjoyable.

I strongly recommend this motion picture.

Travis Clemmons

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