Friday, September 20, 2013

Michael5000 vs. Shakespeare at the Movies: Much Ado About Nothing (Whedon, 2012)

The Play: Much Ado About Nothing.
Directed by: Joss Whedon, 2012.

Ebert: Roger Ebert, as you probably know, died earlier this year.  I am not usually the kind of person who feels a lot of sadness at the passing of people I do not know personally, but Ebert is an exception.  For many years, he was someone I turned to for a well-expressed intelligent opinion on every movie I saw, and with him gone it feels like I've lost one of those people between acquaintances and friends who you only do one thing with, like a racquetball partner or a running buddy or something.  I've lost the guy who I used to talk with about movies, or rather who used to talk to me about movies.  He never listened to what I had to say, but that was OK; it was just the way we got along.  

Anyway, that's my eulogy for Roger Ebert.  He never registered an opinion on this movie because he died before he could see it.  Sheila O'Malley, minding the store at the website, says "Much Ado About Nothing" is one of the best films of the year, for what that's worth.
Rotten Tomatoes: 84% and, interestingly, the only Shakespeare adaptation where I have noticed a higher audience score (86%) than a critical score.  I believe the audience score for Shakespeare movies is usually abysmal.

Previous Much Ado About Nothing on Michael5000 vs. Shakespeare:
Genre & Setting: Comedy with dark bits. Set by Shakespeare on a Sicilian nobleman’s estate. Whedon films this adaptation in L.A. – in his house, apparently – and although he doesn’t explicitly situate the action geographically, the wardrobe and manners are all affluent Los Angeles.

The Gist, which will obviously involve spoilers: This is the one with Beatrice and Benedic, the witty frenemies who need to be helped to realize that they are in love with each other, and Hero and Claudio, who are going to have the world’s most awkward wedding because of the scheming of John the Bastard. Also, the nutty constables.

The Adaptation: Joss Whedon is an incredibly successful Hollywood guy with enough pull that he could film a Shakespeare production with his pals and coerce it into distribution. Hurrah! It is filmed in beautiful low-budget black and white with a cast of extremely talented actors who simply ooze charisma.

Clocks In At: 108 minutes.

OK, listen, I loved this adaptation. I can’t think of a filmed Shakespeare comedy I’ve enjoyed more. A lot of this had to do with the critical intangibles: attractive actors who can deliver lines impeccably and whom, like the architecture and the landscaping, are pleasant just to look at. My guess is, this creative team could make another movie – ANY other movie – and it would be great. Raw craftsmanship: not very interesting to talk about, but lovely to witness.

But when you bring your Shakespeare to the screen, there are a lot of important directorial decisions involved as well. And Whedon very consistently, I felt, made decisions that strengthened Much Ado for a 2010s audience, retaining and amplifying Shakespeare’s comedy, taking some of the edge off of the disturbing bits, and helping some of the less coherent parts of the story make a little more sense. For instance!
  • Problem: Claudio behaves appallingly to Hero, yet we are clearly supposed to like him. Solution: Claudio is really dim. Not a drooling, unkempt idiot, of course, but just the kind of dim bulb who muddles along in life because people like him. We recognize this from his first moments on screen, because he is well acted as such. He’s very easily led, so he falls for John’s duplicity like six tons of bricks, and although we can’t really endorse his behavior, we can recognize that it’s not his fault that he’s dumb. This aspect of his character is there in the play, but this is the first time I’ve seen it really developed.

  • Problem: Damn, that wedding scene is hard to watch. Solution: As Claudio starts making his scene, there is a very short shot of someone in the household entourage directing all the guests away from the action with a determined “move along, folks, nothing to see here” smile. It’s a note of much-needed comic relief, and by removing the in-play audience it also has the effect of mitigating Hero’s humiliation a little, making it less painful for us in the out-of-play audience. Very helpful.

  • Problem: Those wacky constables really muck up the play. Solution: Don’t have the actors play them as clowns. Instead, just have them be normal humans with slightly exaggerated stupidity. Dogberry is nicely rendered here as the incompetent boss that everyone has had at least once in their life, and because he is more-or-less human normal, the other actors can make their own reactions to him make sense. One of the golden lines in this adaptation, for my money, is Leonato to Dogberry and his assistant: “Drink some wine ere you go.” It’s all in the delivery: an exasperated but determined courtesy to the guy from the security company who is making such a pest of himself while the household is trying to put on a wedding, for crying out loud.

  • Problem: The line "I'll hold my mind, were she an Ethiope" sure isn't funny. Solution: Have Claudio blurt it out right in front of an African-American (African-Sicilian?) woman in the wedding party.  Remember, we've already established that he's kind of an idiot; this little vignette both confirms that for us and lets us get in a laugh at his expense, which we want to do after the way he's behaved.
Then too, there are also some aspects of this particular production that aren’t so much problem-solvers as simply choices of interpretation. A few of my favorites:
  • Who are these people, anyway? In the script, the men are soldiers home from some Italian war or other. But in their suits and California leisure wear, Whelan’s characters have nothing of a military air. They seem very wealthy and very powerful, they are able to hold people prisoner fairly openly in their private residences, and they banter charmingly in the kitchen about how many people they have killed. Are they Mafia? We don’t really know, but the subtle notion that all of these nice people might really not be very nice at all gives the film an interesting edge.

  • Conrade is a chick! Who’s Conrade? Eh, minor male character, usually. Played here as a young, bored Beatnikish woman whose reactions to other characters, often a kind of bored incredulity, are pretty damned amusing. She also contributes to the sexification of the film, which I more or less applaud.

  • Beatrice and Benedic have a past! Turns out there's a reason that they make such a point of not getting along, in this telling at least. This idea is developed in about 45 seconds of non-dialog action before the opening credits, and as flashback over four lines of Beatrice’s dialog. This idea is problem-solving in a way, but I don’t think the question of why B & B are the way they are really qualified as a "problem," so I’m filing it under “interesting directorial interpretation.”

  • My Goodness these people drink a lot: I’m not sure what to think of this, although it is certainly an intentional aspect of the movie. Maybe it is intended to invoke an atmosphere of carnival, maybe it is parody of the affluent L.A. social scene, or maybe it’s intended to help explain why the characters act a little irrationally. But damn!

  • Much ado about noting: For Shakespearean audiences, the title of this play was apparently a pun referring to the overhearings and eavesdroppings that are at the heart of the Beatrice and Benedic story. Building on this, perhaps, Whelan brings our collective contemporary nervousness about surveillance to the table. Characters are “noted” not just by each other but by CCT cameras, cell phone video, and, for much of the back half of the film, an omnipresent wedding photographer who, in one quiet non-dialog moment, turns her huge lens on us – the real audience – and takes a picture. Smile!
Prognosis: I could talk all day about this one, but I've probably already overstayed my welcome. I loved it. I haven’t had so much fun in a movie theater in a long time. Maybe you’d like it too!


Michael5000 said...

Regarding: Beatrice and Benedic have a past! I was afraid that the blog Shakespearean would scoff at the very notion, but it turns out she thinks that idea is well-supported by the text. Perhaps by the four lines of Beatrice's dialog I mentioned? Don't know, she didn't say. She also thinks this is implied in the Branaugh adaptation. I didn't see it there, but then she was looking for it and I wasn't. It's a new one on me.

gl. said...

i am delighted to hear this. we're waiting to rent it and it sounds like i am not likely to be too disappointed.

Michael5000 said...

Tell me what you think when the time comes!