Friday, May 03, 2013

Movie Review: Much Ado About Nothing, directed by Joss Whedon
Alexis Denisof and Amy Acker

I was exceptionally lucky to get to see this film adaptation of Shakespeare's comedy ahead of its general, albeit small, three-city release on June 7th, thanks to a screening at the SF Film Festival. Whedon fans have been salivating over rumors of the project -- which was shot in just two weeks, in modern dress, in black and white, at Joss' own home -- for what seems like years, and still I didn't expect the line to be  so epic that despite having advance tickets, we ended up in the last row of the balcony. Actually, it was fantastic to see the Whedon fanbase turn out in such force for Shakespeare (two great things that go great together!), and there was a palpable buzz in the air the moment we got on line.

While it's hard to top Kenneth Branagh's gorgeous 1993 period production, Joss and his fantastic cast of familiar Whedonverse faces have surely benefited from any anxiety of influence: at the risk of sounding like a cheeseball, I left the theater with a magical smile on my face and a warm fuzzy in my heart, which as you may know is not like me at all. I don't want to spoil the story for anyone (can you spoil something that's standard reading in many a literature class?), so I'll settle for spending some time praising the (almost) uniformly excellent cast, many of whom had little or no Shakespearean theater under their belts.

Tom Lenk and Nathan Fillion
As Beatrice and Benedick, fan-favorite star-crossed couple Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof ("Angel") are reunited, and though they spend most of the story in an elaborate war of words, at least this time (double spoiler?) their romance isn't doomed. Both actors show a charming knack for physical comedy, moving like pros from one impossible hiding place to the next in a beautifully choreographed eavesdropping scene. Acker, however, seems to invest her role with slightly more range and seriousness than does Denisof, whose Benedick is sort of on the broad side for my taste. (Think Wesley Wyndam-Pryce, "Rogue Demon Hunter" period, only without the accent.) Benedick is kind of a self-aggrandizing blow-hard, though, and I imagine Denisof's outsized performance might play better on stage than the more intimate screen. Nevertheless, the two stars' chemistry carries the day. (We were also lucky enough that both actors attended the screening. Though they looked like ants from my seat, they gamely and graciously took questions from the audience, Denisof even ringing up Joss and putting him on speakerphone so he could hear us cheering like the deranged fans we are.)

Jillian Morgese (as the largely silent Hero), Clark Gregg and Amy Acker
Several other popular Whedon vets take large parts in the film, which famously came about as an offshoot of impromptu play-reading evenings chez Whedon. Sean Maher (Dr. Simon Tam on "Firefly") makes a reptilian, menacing Don John; Fran Krantz gives Claudio a depth of sincerity and seriousness that surprises after his charming but snarky-comic turns in Dollhouse and Cabin in the Woods; and Clark Gregg (soon to reprise his popular Avengers character Agent Phil Coulson in the upcoming series Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D) makes a beneficent Leonato. Others, like Tom Lenk and Reed Diamond also acquit themselves well, but it's geek heartthrob Nathan Fillion ("Firefly," "Castle") who steals the show as the proud yet bumbling Dogberry, head of Leonato's security team. (People wondered if he could top Michael Keaton's version in Branagh's film -- and with his suave, subtle buffoonery, yes folks, yes he does. Also? Exponentially prettier.) In fact, the only actors who don't seem on-point are not previously associated with Joss: Spencer Treat Clark swallows most of his lines as the schemer Borachio, and Riki Lindhome (you may remember her as Sheldon's grad-student stalker on "The Big Bang Theory") is just plain wooden as a gender-flipped Conrade. Thank the powers-that-be they are but small roles.

To the point: "Much Ado" is a joyous stunner, alight with dreamy cinematography, subtle sight-gags, and sharply comic moments when the action takes a beat to highlight certain, um, difficulties with The Bard's not-always politically correct text. So, if you live in San Francisco, New York, or L.A. get thee to the theater on June 7th so the movie makes a splash big enough for wide release. You don't even have to be a Whedonist to enjoy it . . . although it wouldn't hurt to brush up on your Shakespeare.
Sean Maher, Spencer Treat Clark, Fran Krantz and Riki Lindhome

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