Much Ado About Nothing
Opens Fri., June 21 at Harvard Exit and other theaters. Rated PG-13. 113 minutes.
Summer is the time for Shakespeare in the park, and Joss Whedon’s enjoyably playful comedy is staged in the yard and interiors of his Hollywood home. It’s a very nice house, paid for with all that Buffy and Avengers money, and it’s a plausible Italian castle in this modern-dress, black-and-white adaptation. Much Ado isn’t a vanity project, since Whedon’s cast members are all pros from television. Still, it has the feel of a weekend-home amateur theatrical, with everyone straining to put on a jolly good show and prove their appreciation for the Bard in his original language. Look! There’s Nathan Fillion as the buffoonish captain of the guard, Dogberry! When did he last deliver lines in iambic pentameter—high school? Still, he heaves his shoulders and has fun with his thick-headed part.
As the quarrelsome lovers Beatrice and Benedick, Alexis Denisof and Amy Acker have a better grasp of the language, but their careful syllables don’t always match the sense of the words. Back in ’93, the Americans stood out for the same unfortunate reason among Kenneth Branagh’s mostly British Much Ado cast—poor command of the text. Absent that, there’s a lot of clowning and eye-rolling here that matches the contemporary mood. The tone is light until the overwrought melodrama of Hero and Claudio’s first (failed) wedding ceremony. Hero’s impugned virtue and faked death are treated like tragedies instead of comic misunderstandings during a long, drunken weekend’s festivities.
Clark Gregg probably achieves the best balance of modern acting and Elizabethan verse as Leonato, the weekend’s host and Beatrice’s uncle. For all Acker’s charm, however, she still feels constrained by the old language—her feelings not quite fluent. Prone to mugging and bluster, Denisof struggles with Benedick’s soliloquies, which Whedon ought to have cut to match his movie’s breezy modern tailoring. Besides the cell phones and Prada suits, more liberties should’ve been taken.