TIFF Review: 'Much Ado About Nothing'
Joss Whedon's homebrew Shakespeare will make his fans swoon; as for the rest of us?
Directed over 12 days at his own home (as designed and decorated by his wife), Joss Whedon's "Much Ado About Nothing" was made in a few brief days after Whedon had wrapped "The Avengers," clearly a labor of love for he and his co-workers. The love shows, but some of the labor could have used a little more management; while much of the film is light and loose, there's also plenty of the kind of blank babbling and buffoonery that are no substitute for a clear understanding and speaking of the text and a foundation of something like character. The plot is slender even by the standards of Shakespearean comedy, as Beatrice (Amy Acker) and Benedick (Alexis Denisof) squabble and fall in love while Claudio (Fran Kranz) and Hero (Jillian Morgese) carry out a romance with a more delicate tone and, for a while, a more disastrous outcome.
Shot in black and white with a modern set of costumes and props, Whedon's production is at roughly the level of your average community theater troupe; there are some standouts in terms of performance, even so. Clark Gregg, a longtime stage veteran, is comfortable in both the words and the work as the patriarch and landowner Leonato. Krantz's work as Claudio is invested and expressive. Alexis Denisof, on the other hand, performs Benedick as if he were less influenced by great Shakespeareans like Richard Burton and Richard Burbage than Ron Burgundy; his round, mock-anchor-like tones turn even Benedick's braggadocio too broad to bear. Later in the film, Denisof seems to recognize this as well and tone down, but it's too little too late after too much too soon. Acker, as Beatrice, mostly shines by not being as splayed-out and silly as Denisof.
The blocking, staging and cutting are rushed but adequate; you may best enjoy "Much Ado" if you have spent years cultivating a bred-and-built pop-culture appreciation of Whedon's work that leads you to applaud actors like Nathan Fillion and Sean Maher (as Dogberry and Don John) at first sight, without a word uttered or line spoken. Whedon's fan base lives up to the root of the word; news came of Toronto screenings earlier where the crowd gave him a standing ovation before the film, formally jumping from "enthusiasm" to something more ominous, like "idolatry" or "blind faith." And for all of the spit-takes and somersaults and slapstick that don't really add much, I will note that Whedon gets in one great nicely pointed jab at the Bard's more medieval attitudes, a single high note in a film destined one day to less be seen as a classic as to be avidly played on DVD by substitute English teachers eager to look cool-ish.
Again, Whedon's film is on par with an average community theater production, if your local community theater had millions of dollars in locations and equipment, a thriving internet-fed fan base eager for any kind of effort let alone actual work, and slightly fewer rehearsals. To anyone who suggests that Whedon's larkish Rooney-Garland-esque exercise in "Let's put on a show" is too harshly judged here, or anywhere, as it was "for fun" I will note that I do plenty of things for fun; I don't then try to then sell them to distributors at a film festival, as Whedon did here. Lionsgate picked up his "Much," probably for not that much, and looks forward to Whedon's acolytes and supporters filling their coffers with ducats, ducats and dubloons earned not with the sweat of labor but through greasy obeisance from an army of loving fans. If that sounded like half-assed Shakespeare, that was intentional; it's too bad that, for Whedon, half-assing Shakespeare is going to pay off.