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June 6, 2013


Some thoughts about Much Ado About Nothing, which I haven't seen

Much Ado About Nothing poster

The other day I saw this poster for Joss Whedon's film adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing, with its tagline, "Shakespeare Knew How To Throw a Party". I'm still throwing up.

I haven't seen the movie yet, and I'm trying to keep an open mind. Critics certainly seem to love it, and I can believe that it's a fun time. But I've been irritated by the whole idea of this movie since the trailer came out, and still have some reservations.

First of all, some marketing firm came up with that idiotic tagline, but Shakespeare and his alleged ability to throw a party shows that those involved in this adaptation think Much Ado is a lighthearted romp. Shakespeare is a blast, kids! Look at all these beautiful young people drinking and carousing in the trailer! It's not like school, it's cool and fun. While it's fine to claim that experiencing Shakespeare is a good time, it assumes that audiences are incapable of appreciating the other enjoyable aspects of Shakespeare: the language, the wise and timeless insights into human nature, the emotions, the jokes.

Also, as much as I respect Joss Whedon and his clever, whimsical style, when I think about filmmakers I would trust with modernizing Shakespeare, I'm not sure he's above #40 on that list. He uses actors that are great for his kind of writing. But hiring the cast of "Angel" and "Dollhouse" to do Shakespeare strikes me as a bad misjudgment. American TV actors are fine for disposable American TV shows with that Whedon-esque snappy dialogue, but they might not bring the gravitas, skill, and confidence you need to pull off Shakespeare.

British director Trevor Nunn once said, "I have yet to see [Much Ado] done with sufficient seriousness." That's because it's not a lighthearted romp, like Whedon's version appears to be--it's actually really dark. The story follows two not-young people (Beatrice and Benedick) who have been through the emotional ringer, and seem to have a kind of romance PTSD. The subplot (Claudio and Hero) is about the world's harshest case of (misguided) slut-shaming, regret, and death. I might be wrong here, but I'll bet that Whedon didn't pick up on any of that in his adaptation. In an NPR interview, he calls the play the basis for all modern romantic comedies. Yeah, the language is a lot of fun, but the themes are dark, dark, dark.

Also, why is it in black and white? The movie was shot in Whedon's own sun-drenched southern California home, so the stark, austere, moody look of black and white seems out of place. I think he did it as an easy way to manufacture a sense of artistic legitimacy. For a certain audience, black and white automatically means "arty and serious", so they'll watch this Joss Whedon movie with second-rate TV actors and think "I'm watching a serious Shakespearean film, it must be good!" and get to feel smart and cultured.

Maybe I'm being too cynical. Critics who like the movie like A.O. Scott have personal preferences that are different than mine; in his glowing review he says, "I prefer my Shakespeare in modern clothing and with American accents." One day, if he's lucky, maybe he'll get to see David Boreanaz's Hamlet!

categories: Movies
posted by amy at 4:50 PM | #

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I'll admit, I was with you until about the third or fourth paragraph (and would add that the image alone would keep me away even if it were on Netflix), but then I'm going to have to ask for some substantiation of the Whedon-bashing here- as in, why would slut-shaming, black-as-midnight themes on romance, regret, and death necessarily not be on his radar? I mean, you've seen his work, right?

I'll just throw this out there. Every Whedon project I've ever heard of since the 90's, even including this one, I gut disliked before I saw it for exactly the reasons you're describing. In every instance, someone forced me to watch and I was wrong. Which is not to say he hasn't failed ("Dollhouse" comes to mind, he's not great with race and economics, and yes at a certain point in "Cabin In The Woods" I was in a bad mood and went ahead and Wikipedia'd the plot summary), but when he fails, he fails interestingly. When he succeeds, his grasp of adolescence and its language as milieu for adult themes on desperation, isolation, and the permanent way life's actions affect us, is bar-none better than any director of teen-angst out there. And, hey, at least Spike (James Marsters) was RSC!

Anyway, I'll still wait for someone else to see this thing first, though- haven't yet read the reviews.

Posted by: ooghe at June 7, 2013 3:22 PM

I'm basing my assumption that Whedon's version glosses over the play's darker aspects on the reviews I've read, which all emphasize the lighthearted, breezy, fun feel of the movie. Whedon certainly knows how to incorporate healthy dollops of cynicism and desperation into his work, but no one who's seen Much Ado has pointed to those kinds of themes as the strength of the movie. They like that it's light and fun. I'd argue that isn't a wholly appropriate approach to take to this play. Maybe the fact that he chose a comedy with dark themes built into it shows that he gets it--we'll have to see it and find out, I guess.

Also, Nathan Fillion as Dogberry seems to be the critical favorite. I love Dogberry too, but if that's the best performance in the movie, I'm guessing that the comic relief elements are emphasized more than the uglier aspects of the story.

I also feel like the logical progression of this Whedon-does-Shakespeare idea would lead us to Eliza Dushku as Rosalind, and no one wants to see that.

Posted by: amy at June 7, 2013 4:08 PM

Just saw it... I wouldn't say it glosses over the dark aspects of the movie. They do sit weirdly with the light aspects, especially in the quick transitions.... But I think that's Shakespeare's fault, not Whedon's. That play has tone problems that I've never seen anyone fix. The movie's problem has more to do with Whedon's approach to dialogue; he's always been interested in the way people use language to conceal their feelings, but the characters in Much Ado don't really have much by way of subtext or hidden agendas, they're pretty much pure surface, little bundles of wordplay poorly masking as people. So Whedon takes them, if anything, a little too seriously.

Posted by: That Fuzzy Bastard at July 8, 2013 11:40 PM

Yeah, there's not a lot of subtext for Whedon to play with in the Beatrice and Benedick characters. Some might disagree with me, but I think they're being honest at the beginning when they say they have zero interest in love, and then change their minds due to deception and manipulation, as Shakespeare's characters so readily do. Maybe there's just no good way to reconcile all that fun wordplay with the hideously heavy downer of the Claudio/Hero sub-plot.

Posted by: amy at July 10, 2013 3:58 PM