Much Ado About Nothing

Our watch, sir, have indeed comprehended two auspicious persons

Amy AckerShakespeare is one of the only writers whose work can be acceptably “interpreted” to fit new adaptations.  One of the more popular ideas about Much Ado About Nothing – among the most effective of Shakespeare’s comedies – is that Beatrice and Benedick are rediscovering an old love as opposed to finding it for the first time.  Joss Whedon plays with this in his new adaptation, which he shot at his own home in Santa Monica in record time.  Much of the great nuance stems from Whedon’s film technique, including his use of black-and-white, which may remind one of the great comedies of old (Shakespeare’s play is unarguably one of the earliest examples of screwball comedy), namely the 1930s.  Finally, a Shakespeare film adaptation by a director that not only understands the text, but also understands the conventions of the film genre in which he works and how employing those conventions might bolster the effectiveness of the movie.

The story follows the original, down to the exact word aside from some interesting shifts – the various songs from the play, sung by characters, are here absorbed into the film’s soundtrack – and Whedon’s inspired choice to switch Conrade’s (Riki Londhome) gender, rendering her the lover of the mostly-offscreen scoundrel Don John (Sean Maher).  This enables some wonderful opportunities in blocking, and also some invention on the part of the filmmakers, which is always important in an adaptation, and usually leads to vicious abuse of the source material.  Not here.

Beatrice and Benedick, the leads, are played warmly and familiarly by Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof, who just might be the new sweethearts of the screen (think Peppy and George, but not quite so forced).  Acker’s Beatrice is steadfast, opinionated, and witty beyond belief.  Denisof’s Benedick is relentlessly hammy, and never misses the mark with his nearly endless quips.  I’d have watched a movie comprised of nothing but these two, but we get much more, namely in Riki Lindhome as the infamously straightforward Conrade, whose facial expressions in the film are as good as any of her lines, and Nathan Fillion as Constable Dogberry, written by Shakespeare to be the dumbest, most inept character of all time, who inadvertently (along with his underlings) saves the day by revealing Don John’s dastardly plot to frame naive and frustratingly-silent Hero (Jillian Morgese) for an adultery she never committed.  Fillion delivers Shakespeare’s arduously-crafted malapropisms more naturally than anyone I’ve seen in the role (don’t take that the wrong way, Nathan).  Fran Kranz appears as Claudio, the play’s Boring Hero, and delivers most of the film’s straight-played dramatic dialogue more than convincingly.  The role of Don Pedro, Prince of Aragon – who functions mostly as Claudio’s drunk friend whose lot in life is to provide bad advice with high-school-level maturity – is taken up by Reed Diamond, who keeps an appropriate presence and doesn’t upstage the less overt Claudio when he isn’t supposed to.  Clark Gregg of The Avengers plays Leonato, governor of Messina, who decides on all of the ridiculous stipulations in the story.

The resulting movie is the best onscreen comedy in years, in a world wherein screwball comedy has lately been defined by lowbrow sex jokes, hit-or-miss improv, and increasingly preposterous situations.  Here is something low key, accessible, cultured, and smart.  Here is something heartfelt, truly funny, and furthermore, relevant – Shakespeare’s poking fun at the incompetent police forces of his day (which at the time were made up of respectable citizens who took up the job for a few nights a year despite being all but completely unqualified to do so) doesn’t quite pinpoint the more serious missteps of our current enforcement, but Dogberry’s ineptitude (not least of which is his famously redundant list of Conrade and Borachio’s felonies) and eventual day-saving suggest that social order and emotional normalcy can and will be restored by sheer providence/circumstance.  It also showcases women in a medium (Renaissance comedy) wherein many folks may not have thought prominent female characters would exist (or at least not as wives and damsels, as they do in much of Shakespeare’s work).  Moreover, all the wit and wordplay still dazzle, right down to the title: “nothing” and “noting” were homonyms when the play was written, and here we have a story in which every character’s emotional stability is upturned due to something that did not actually happen (i.e. “nothing”), and every major turning point in the story is triggered by characters spying and eavesdropping on one another (i.e. “noting”).

May Whedon continue along this road.  This is real superhero work.

Much Ado About Nothing (2013); written and directed by Joss Whedon; adapted from the play by William Shakespeare; starring Amy Acker, Alexis Denisof, Nathan Fillion, and Riki Lindhome.

Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog

A sequel would be nice, of course

I confess to never having been extremely interested in Joss Whedon’s work (and it’s not only because of having a girlfriend back in high school who was obsessed with Buffy), but when the love of the stage musical is passionately translated to screen (and in an original production, no less), I’ll give any director a chance.

Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog is a 42-minute film, originally posted in three installments on the internet, which brings the concept of the musical to the screen in a way not done since The Rocky Horror Picture Show (the biggest difference being this is not an adaptation of a stage work).  Whedon’s film features Neil Patrick Harris as Billy, also known as Doctor Horrible, a weaselly-but-sweet science genius who wants to become a supervillain, hoping to stake his claim by joining the Evil League of Evil, led by the mysterious Bad Horse.  He seems to be on the right track until his laundromat crush, Penny (Felicia Day) falls for his arch-nemesis, the brawny and foppish Captain Hammer (Nathan Fillion), who serves as the city’s superhero but seems to frequently cause more harm than good.  Horrible becomes distracted, and due to his failures, is told the only way he can prove he is evil enough to join the league is by carrying out an assassination.

The film is told at the outset through video-blog entries by Horrible himself, during which he reads and answers emails from his fans.  The songs, which occupy a refreshing majority of the film’s storytelling time, are well-written and full of heart, not to mention performed with staggering passion and talent by the cast.  Harris’ singing ability is no secret, and Felicia Day plays Penny as a stout-hearted and tragic woman who sings away her pain.  Fillion’s vocals are good enough, though his role doesn’t require Hammer to be an amazing singer.  Bad Horse, who turns out to be an actual horse, makes his presence known through singing cowboys, who may or may not actually exist, conveying the will of the League’s leader to Horrible via song.  My favorite pieces from the film include “My Eyes,” “Bad Horse Chorus,” “A Man’s Gotta Do” and “Brand New Day.”

The short run time causes the film’s story to be terse and tightly-told, giving us time to get to know Horrible, our lovable anti-hero, and root him all the way to the end.  This is the type of work Whedon should stick to – Buffy was his TV legacy, and the upcoming Avengers is a great opportunity to make some money and become a Hollywood name, but Dr. Horrible‘s heart is undeniable, and the sheer amount of care by the cast and crew is supremely evident.

More than a nerd gem, Dr. Horrible is independent visual (and musical) art in its true form.  The DVD version even includes applications to the League sent in by fans of the film.  This is when you know you’re onto something special.

Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog (2008); written by Joss Whedon, Jed Whedon, Zack Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen; directed by Joss Whedon; starring Neil Patrick Harris, Felicia Day and Nathan Fillion.