Sunday, July 7, 2013

Much Ado About Nothing (2012)

MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING         B                  
USA  (109 mi)  2012  d:  Joss Whedon                        Official site

While this film may have had a more interesting history in terms of how it originated, as it was filmed entirely on the premises of the director’s own Southern California home where a group of friends came to visit to partake in backyard Shakespeare parties, acting out various scenes until the director got the idea to shoot this film in 12 days using a variety of TV actors while he was simultaneously making a mega-million dollar Hollywood comic book adventure movie THE AVENGERS (2012).  So while this may have played out as a trifle, a little playful fun to take the pressure off of having to produce a box office success, the director does get the opportunity to restage into the modern era one of Shakespeare’s most comically accessible plays, where the incendiary, rapid fire dialogue does resemble sitcom TV shows.  But that’s precisely the problem, where this feels a little too much like watching television, where there are no major movie stars and none of the performances stand out, where there’s an interesting production design, shot in Black and White, and a few minor alterations in the script added for humor, but overall nothing that particularly stands out.  While it’s perfectly enjoyable, and is meant to be a breezy, lightweight comedy, there is also a certain dramatic heft in the play that is lacking due to time restraints, as tragic elements are lost by not having the opportunity to develop the characters properly.  This is, after all, Shakespeare we’re talking about, the best writer who ever lived, not just some hack working in the business.  This guy pre-dated the business, where in celebrated literary critic Harold Bloom’s book Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, he goes so far as to suggest that Shakespeare, and likely the play Hamlet in particular, may be the root of human personality.  All right, so we get none of that from watching this film, which does, however, retain much of the wit, utter wreckage of the English language (by the police detectives, of course), and plenty of physical comedy, including some hilarious pratfalls.  Perhaps the film this most resembles is Woody Allen’s A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy (1982), a delightful comic romp through the woods, borrowing heavily from Bergman’s SMILES OF A SUMMER NIGHT (1955), where Woody and Mia Farrow’s initial chemistry together is simply off the charts, falling short of that mark, but it retains the same air of happy, good-natured fun.   

While the expression “a war of words” may have had its origins with this production, the highlight of the story is the furious verbal interchange between male and female leads, Benedick and Beatrice (Alexis Denisoff and Amy Acker), a saucy pair of sparring former lovers, barely even suggested in the original but explicitly shown here, where what seems like the most mismatched couple in the universe, through a bit of trickery and behind-the-scenes manipulation, comes together in harmony and happily fall in love.  As impossible as that may seem, no one is more surprised than they are, as they spend the entire film endlessly bickering and complaining about one another, literally duking it out with nonstop insults and inflammatory accusations, exhausting everyone’s patience to the point where they’ve had enough, only to start up again like there’s no tomorrow.  While Benedick is vain and something of an arrogant male buffoon, misogynist and cocksure of himself while contemptuously mocking of everyone else throughout, never taking anything or anyone as seriously as he takes himself, so ends up alone sputtering soliloquies most of the time, needing no other audience than himself, Beatrice is one of Shakespeare’s smartest women, who has a brain and is not afraid to use it along with her acid tongue, resembling the combative Kate in The Taming of the Shrew, displaying a healthy contempt for the male species, which makes her the most modern of all characters, seemingly out of place with a more backward group mindset, but Acker is much too meek and middle-of-the-road ordinary, where it’s more important for her to be liked than to be heard.  The language is flowery and delightfully comic, all cast in an air of bourgeois manners and good taste, as these are representatives of the upper crest of society, so behavior is key.  In a parallel love story, this one with younger, more innocent lovers, more openly public for all to see, the noble Claudio (Fran Kranz) expresses his affection for Hero (Jillian Morgese), the fair daughter of governor Leonato (Clark Gregg), where the entire setting takes place on the grounds of the governor’s massive estate.  While the younger couple can barely utter a word, so sweetly smitten with one another, the other two swear off love and marriage altogether, so consumed by the fumes of their discontent.  Two plans are simultaneously hatched in secret, one drop dead hilarious and the other one devilishly cruel, where the eavesdropping Benedick first, followed later by Beatrice, will overhear idle gossip about how much the other is in love with them (where they clumsily hide and step all over themselves to be able to hear), but because of their professed disdain of love, could never actually admit to such a thing, where such flattering attention immediately amends their hostile views, suddenly aglow with love, both primping with peacock-like pride, while in the other, a much darker and malevolent plot is meant to expose the virginesque Hero as a fraud, where in a malicious charade of deceitful disguises and mistaken identity, Claudio is led to believe his beloved is already cheating on him.  Refusing to play the fool, he publicly chastises her and shamefully denounces her at the altar in what is an affront to her virtue, making it difficult to sympathize with him afterwards, but sending the parties into a swooning despair. 

If you like unhappy endings, you may as well end it right there, usually a curtain closer between acts where patrons can order drinks in the lobby and decry the injustice of it all.  But Shakespeare isn’t a miserablist, but knew how to sell tickets and enjoyed wreaking havoc on his audience’s expectations, where he is, after all, the author of All’s Well That Ends Well, but that’s another story.  But as in Romeo and Juliet, the Friar comes to the rescue, concocting a little scheme of his own (when did the Church become so ingeniously inventive?), feigning Hero’s death, hoping to extract the truth of the matter as well as Claudio’s remorse.  While there are some behind-the-scenes shenanigans, Leonato also calls in the guards, who unwittingly overhear mischief in the making, where the chief constable Dogberry (Nathan Fillion) gives a credible turn as the most bumbling butcher of the English language, turning a small and truly asinine character into a shameless scene stealer, where he and his minions may get the biggest laughs of the entire film.  The befuddled awkwardness of the police, however, sets the scene for the inevitable turnaround of events, where the mystery of it all is a tapestry of illusion, including the elusive nature of love itself, a bewildering and mystifying enigma that continually alters form, befuddling those within its grasp, who often haven’t a clue what to make of it, as it’s never what one expects, or is anywhere near when you need it, but largely comes as a surprise, as if it’s been there all along but you somehow overlooked seeing it.  The weakest element, however, is how quickly and easily it all wraps up at the end, without ever feeling love is earned, making it all feel superficially cheap afterwards.  And while this is a relatively meek mannered Benedick and Beatrice, who spare the meanness and never deliver the down and dirty maliciousness written into the characters, they continue their wordplay right to the end, never really believing that any of this is actually happening to them, where reality itself cannot be trusted, and the world is not what it seems.  There’s another reality that lives within the existing one, an illusory world that has the power of magic and deceit, but can also reveal unheard of wonders that one never imagined.  Not sure this condensed version adds anything except easy accessibility, something akin to Shakespeare-light, but the film is a comedy of manners, given a brisk pace that accentuates the good life and a few surrealist touches, like an absurd scene in the pool or an arrest captured on an iPhone, where the considerable consumption of alcohol likely violates some unwritten moral law, yet the movie basks in the glory of good over evil, feeling more like a fairy tale where they all live happily ever after. 

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