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.

Stand Up Guys

Black suits you

Walken, Arkin, PacinoImagine a film similar to Superbad, but with male retirees as a target audience.  Now picture the lead characters as people who in their younger days aspired to be Michael Corleone and/or any of the dual-pistol-wielding badasses of John Woo’s A Better Tomorrow films.  You’d expect the result to be an amusing admixture somewhere between a crime film and a buddy comedy, right?  If you answered yes, Stand Up Guys will not surprise you, but if you’re still with me so far, you’ll be happy to get exactly what you expect.

The set-up involves Doc (Christopher Walken) ponderously puttering around before picking up Val (Al Pacino), an old criminal accomplice, from prison, where the latter has just finished serving a 28-year sentence for accidentally killing the evil progeny of criminal mastermind Claphands (Mark Margolis), whose name signifies that he…really wants approval, I guess.  The duo hang around Doc’s apartment and deliver some stiff dialogue (skirting Island Syndrome for the first few minutes), and then Val decides he will do some partying to celebrate his release, even though the Doc he once knew is now an old man with old man habits and an early bedtime.  Soon comes the kicker that gets the main story arc moving: Doc has been ordered by Claphands to kill Val posthaste and deliver his body.  Apparently, the SOB wanted Val to serve every minute of his sentence before being dealt the ultimate payback.  Doc, however, (despite not seeing Val for 28 years) is gentler than he once was, and has fond memories of Val, whom he now realizes is his only friend.  Val, it turns out, only did all of this partying because he suspected he was to be killed by Doc, and wonders why his friend hasn’t just gotten it over with already.

The movie is directed by Fisher Stevens, who guest-starred as the ill-fated George Minkowski on LOST.  Stevens structures his movie like any other buddy comedy: through a series of vignettes involving the same protagonists and multiple supporting characters who only appear in their respective segments (I did the same thing with Slices a few years ago, when I was required to follow a set structure, and it’s surprisingly difficult to pull off, namely because you have to justify each segment’s existence in the overall plot; many are inevitably cut).   Claphands breathes down Doc’s neck and makes clear that he must kill Val before 10am or suffer the consequences.  With a full night of freedom left, Doc and Val go on an adventure that begins when Val steals a “sweet-ass” car.  They soon rescue their former getaway driver, Hirsch (Alan Arkin) from a retirement home, and he immediately goes from breathing through an oxygen tank to whipping across the highway at 90+ miles-an-hour.  From here, I got the sense that there were some script revisions concerning how disparate and madcap each mini-adventure would be.  Perhaps Stevens realized he had Walken, Pacino, and Arkin in the same movie, and decided to do everything possible with them.  This leads us to some genre sampling, including Ferrell/Apatow-style screwball comedy (brothel humor, the inevitable old-man-on-Viagra joke, and a pup-tent erection); GoodFellas-era Scorsese black humor (a naked woman is found in the trunk of a stolen car and the gang must decide what to do with her), which leads to a bizarrely lighthearted and totally-played-for-laughs version of the infamous rape-and-revenge genre films (aforementioned woman reveals that she was kidnapped, sexually abused, and released by a gang, and the Stand Up Guys, being stand-up guys, beat the crap out of the gang and allow the woman to do what she will with them afterward); Tarantino-ish table chat scenes (which come off more as deliberate opportunities for these three veteran actors to be onscreen together and play off of each other for longer); and even Hong Kong action for a short time, in a finale that delivers not enough and possibly too much at the same time, but I leave that to you.

The supporting cast includes Vanessa Ferlito (!), who I haven’t seen since Death Proof, and whose effortless natural strength (not to mention her wonderful Italian attitude, a woman after my own heart) can steal any show, even when performing with these guys.  Julianna Margulies plays Nina, a doctor and the daughter of Hirsch, who gets a bit more screen time than most of the supporting women.  Lucy Punch, who also appeared in Grindhouse, plays Wendy, the proprietor of the brothel (previously owned by her mother, the former romantic partner of Val), and has a warm presence in the movie until a somewhat ludicrous scene involving Arkin’s character, which would be funny if not for how obligatory it seems – the “feeble old man happens to be a sex god” joke has worn out for me, sorry.  It’s old hat and reliably disrespectful to the women involved.

Perhaps most interesting among the supporting characters is Alex (Addison Timlin), a waitress who happens to be working at the diner (and busing the exact table at which the group sits) every time they come in over the course of nearly 24 hours.  She’s young, pretty, and loves chatting with Doc, who sits in her section every single morning.  She appears as a sort of mystical character, is always at the perfect calm, and is the only character who can draw out the softer details of Doc’s character, and thus convinces us to sympathize with him throughout (not that Walken’s acting doesn’t do a good enough job).  Her true identity is, like most things in this story, what you would expect, but the film’s adherence to structure is what keeps it from skirting farce (despite a Surprise Demise in the middle of the story and the aforementioned finale).

Al Pacino needs to choose his roles carefully now, and acting with Walken and Arkin again is a good one.  His voice is gravely and despondent.  He knows time is running out, and his more emotional scenes hit home, in spite of the fact that the “ticking timer” trope is shopworn and synthetic.  It means something to us only when it means something to the characters, and there’s a good sense of urgency here thanks to the secondary situation: not only does Val only have a few hours to live, but he and Doc only have a few hours to rekindle their friendship.  Walken, who had a good year in 2012, continues to play roles he’s comfortable in, but that don’t bring him into the territory of self-parody.

Throughout the story, characters reminisce for the sake of depth and exposition.  It’s worth noting that when the guys reminisce about their back-in-the-day criminal escapades, it’s nowhere near as interesting as when they (and other characters) reminisce about meaningful memories together.

A few bafflers: why/how does Claphands, a criminal mastermind with tons of money, keep his office in a building that looks condemned?  Why does he only seem to have two henchmen?  Why aren’t his henchmen imposing?  If he only has two non-imposing henchmen and his fortress is in the middle of the (nameless) city, why is Doc so petrified of him?  Why are the owners of the “sweet-ass” car, who are purportedly so tough and infamous that they don’t even lock their car because no one would be dumb enough to steal it, a bunch of wiry white dudes who end up easily pushed over?  Why is Alex trusting enough to go alone to a stranger’s apartment?  Again, it goes back to why most things in this movie happen: because it’s necessary to the film’s House of Cards plot, which would collapse should one detail be altered.  If you’re involved in the story and willing to go with it, none of this is very distracting.

The film’s title is one of those Road Sign Game opportunities.  Place punctuation, and the whole meaning changes, and you don’t feel bad about it because the words didn’t make much sense in the first place (remember “No, U turn”?).  Stand Up Guys doesn’t refer to the name of their gang; it’s a term referring to a responsible person, which Val claims to be, and which Doc certainly strives to be.  Do they succeed?  If you don’t think so, you can always call it Stand Up, Guys!  They do sit around a lot.

Stand Up GuysStand Up Guys (2013); written by Noah Haidle; directed by Fisher Stevens; starring Christopher Walken, Al Pacino, Alan Arkin, and Vanessa Ferlito.

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