As I watched Joss Wheedon’s energetic yet flavourless black and white contemporary movie version of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing I found myself paying more attention to the set than to the actors. The film was shot at Wheedon’s own house in Santa Monica. Wheedon directed the Marvel Comics The Avengers, which last year made $623,357,910 domestically in the US alone, nearly tripling the production budget. Given that kind of bankroll, you can’t help wondering where he chooses to bunk down. And this is a very nice house indeed, but quite free of conspicuous display. It’s big, airy, light, pretty, tasteful. It looks like a great house for entertaining — and indeed the play, as shot, unreels like a party, with characters continually pouring each other drinks from omnipresent wine bottles and bars. But the house also feels stripped of anything personal, as if “staged” for showing by an estate agent to potential buyers. The pictures are bland, the chandeliers quiet. Contents of bookshelves look uniform. It’s hard to tell if they contain books or DVD’s. If they’re books, does he read them, I wondered, or are they just filler? Outside there’s a little hill and what could be a park beyond. It’s luxuriously quiet. All very posh, understated — and bland.
This movie is bland and neutral too. The processed black and white images, “fifty shades of gray,” typically for digital lack the voluptuous richness of classic black and white films. Wheedon has added bits of pop music and some energetic stage business, but not much excitement. The result feels like a dressy university or small town production — the clothes don’t look cheap — with a few pro actors sifted in to help things going. Nevertheless at times the rhythm is gone (if there is any) and the action goes momentarily quite disconcertingly dead. The delivery of lines is generally fluent; an effort has been made. These are good looking people. Nothing extraordinary. Most of the cast are said to be Wheedon regulars, the whole production sort of a “stunt” or a “lark” executed in a couple of weeks.
Of course one can only admire Joss Wheedon for spending his spare time in such a literate manner. But as I watched I was haunted by a damning memory of Cate Blanchett in a trailer of the new Woody Allen shown just before this film came on. The intense comic spin she put on her one or two lines blew away all the dialogue of Wheedon’s Much Ado. Perhaps in the effort to shape it to contemporary American rhythms foreign to their original tone, the Much Ado dialogue is made curiously colourless. Clever ripostes lose their punch; elaborate parallelisms are muffled. To liven things up, slapstick gestures are added. Somebody falls down. A man flops around outside a window in a pathetically overwrought effort to make his eavesdropping comical. Someone has a cocktail in a swimming pool wearing diving goggles. Alas, a swimming pool adds nothing to Much Ado.
Shakespearean texts aren’t easy to follow at the best of times. They’re full of words whose meanings have since changed. The comedies have tricky plots with a galaxy of curious Italianate names to learn like Benedict, Claudio, Borachio, Leonato. This time, it’s even harder. The actors aren’t very easy to distinguish. Color, and colorful costumes, would have helped, but are absent. All the visuals and action are bravely contemporary. But the dialogue, though trimmed, is still Shakespeare. Hence there is a disconnect. The look, the behavior, the intonations are so far from the Elizabethan world, the sensation is like watching a film while listening to an unrelated sound track. One can scarcely credit that these words are coming out of these mouths.
I don’t mean to imply that Wheedon’s Much Ado is a total failure. Its neutrality may be seen as a virtue compared to such overbearingly baroque extravaganzas as Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet. Its light touch explains how Anthony Lane of The New Yorker could choose to call it “a filigree of a film.” Wheedon may take too much away, but he also doesn’t add too much. In principle I would certainly totally agree with Lane in saying we should “laud the fact that this movie was made at all.” Imagine the man behind The Avengers, the violent high-concept horror film The Cabin in the Woods, and TV series like “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” bothering to make a movie, just for a lark, of a Shakespeare comedy. Lane is right, but quixotic, and doubtless tongue-in-cheek, in voicing the hope that “other large-scale directors will be inspired to launch similar ventures. Michael Bay does Congreve? J.J. Abrams blows us away with ‘Lady Windermere’s Fan’? Bring ’em on.” Maybe. But it’s not gonna happen.
Still it’s hard to see how this movie has received so many good reviews. The mystery is partly solved by knowing that Joss Wheedon is a “cult” director, and that the Toronto debut of Much Ado had plenty of has fanboys and fangirls on hand, laughing uproariously at every effort to draw a chuckle, delivering a final ovation on cue. Once the ball gets rolling, critical acclaim tends to follow. And the critics’ hearts are in the right place: they want to encourage “culture” on US screens. But American film goers in search of the best in stage-to-screen entertainment might do better to watch one of those UK-export “National Theatre Live” productions.
DIRECTOR: JOSS WHEEDON
WRITER: JOSS WHEEDON, FROM THE PLAY BY WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE
STARS: AMY ACKER, ALEXIX DENISOF, FRAN KRANZ, NATHAN FILLION, FRAN KRANZ, JILLIAN MORGESE, SPENCER TREAT CLARK
RUNTIME: 106 MIN