Monday, June 24, 2013

Movie Review: "Much Ado About Nothing"

I’m fairly certain that I was the only person at Lincoln Center who went to this movie because it was directed by the man who did “The Avengers.” Everyone else was there to see a film adaptation of William Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing.” I was there because some small part of me secretly hoped  the Hulk was going to show up.

Hulk rage against the dying of the light!
Not that I don’t like Shakespeare. What kind of English-speaking writer would I be if I presumed to have an opinion about Shakespeare other than, “He’s the greatest English-speaking writer forever and all time”? Shakespeare isn’t some damn Facebook page, his works are beyond “like” or “dislike.”

That said, you can like or dislike adaptations of Shakespeare, because some are better than others at balancing the brilliance of the (admittedly archaic) language with the universality of the characters and subject matter. It’s tricky to pull off. You need actors who feel comfortable with the language, and for movie adaptations, a director who can coax the five-act play structure into a decently-paced three-act film for the modern movie-going audience.

Joss Whedon’s “Much Ado About Nothing” is a good movie, but I actually find its flaws more interesting than its strengths, because its flaws illustrate why a good Shakespeare adaptation is so hard to achieve, and they ultimately highlight the strengths of this movie just by virtue of contrast. As strange as it may seem, this movie is good because it’s not great.

Also, everyone drinks A LOT. I don't think it's exaggeration to say that every character is hammered in every scene. Leonato passes out at the breakfast table in middle of a conversation with the Prince, it's fucking hysterical.
And it is good. I wouldn’t have guessed that Whedon, who made his mark in the science fiction genre, would even be interested in adapting a light-hearted Shakespeare comedy. But he is a master of quotable dialogue and the ensemble cast, so why the hell not? I wouldn’t have guessed that Kenneth Branagh, director of the greatest modern Shakespeare movie adaptations and Shakespearian actor himself, would ever direct a superhero action flick, and yet his “Thor” ended up being one of the best of the pre-Avengers Marvel movies.

Google "Thor" and this is the first image you get. Rightly so.
For those who don’t know the story, “Much Ado About Nothing” has a couple of plot threads running through it. The prince and a bunch of various noble-people gather at the Lord Leonato’s country estate for partying and general merriment. Leonato’s daughter Hero falls in love with Claudio and they decide to get married. This makes everyone else at the party so happy that they decide to spread the love around and see if they can’t get Leonato’s niece, Beatrice, to fall in love with the prince’s friend, Benedick.

Beatrice and Benedick are the main characters in this play. They hate each other and spend most of their time either saying to other people how much they hate each other, or just saying it to each other’s faces. Incredible feats of insults ensue.

"Jerk." "Butthole."
Whedon makes the interesting choice to show that they hate each other because they once had a disastrous one-night stand, and I say “interesting” because this is where the adaptation starts to wobble on its foundations a bit. Like Baz Luhrmann’s “Romeo + Juliet,” this movie uses the original Shakespearian language of the play, but places the action in a modern setting, so there are still princes and lords saying “forsooth” a lot, but they use cell phones and guns. When this technique works, as it largely does in “Much Ado About Nothing,” it achieves that tricky balancing act I mentioned earlier, keeping the magic of the language intact while updating the setting to demonstrate the timelessness of Shakespeare’s work. But the problem is sex.

Isn’t it always?

"They want how much for the swing? What if we just got the harness?"
Attitudes about sex, especially women’s sexuality, aren’t timeless. A Shakespeare adaptation with a modern sensibility can get away with showing Benedick and Beatrice, an unmarried couple, in bed together in the prologue. A chronologically-accurate adaptation couldn’t do that, because that’s not something noblewomen were allowed to do in the sixteenth century (notice I say allowed). It’s not the one-night stand that bothers me about this movie, but how it contradicts the main conflict of the original story.

Bear with me while I lay down some exposition: Claudio and Hero fall in love and they’re going to get married on the morrow with the blessing of the prince and her lord father. But the prince’s half-brother John is an asshole and he tells Claudio that Hero is a slut, just this massive ho-bag with a gaping vagina like a whale’s mouth (to summarize). John raises enough suspicions in Claudio’s mind that Claudio spies on Hero the night before the wedding and sees her fucking some random dude. Claudio is actually seeing one of John’s servants fucking Hero’s maid, who is wearing Hero’s wedding dress because of class resentment, I guess. At the wedding the next day, Claudio spurns Hero at the altar and calls her a massive whale-vagina’d slutty ho-bag in front of her father, the prince, the priest, and all the wedding guests. Hero faints, Claudio and all the guests leave, and the priest hatches a scheme with Hero’s father, Benedick and Beatrice to get revenge on Claudio. Since everyone saw Hero faint, the priest will tell everyone that Hero died of heartbreak from Claudio’s lies. As soon as either the priest, Leonato, Beatrice or Benedick can find proof that Hero came to the altar a virgin, they’ll reveal to Claudio that Hero is still alive, and then the two can get married as planned because he won’t be grossed out by her used and tattered vagina anymore.

I didn't want to search for "tattered vagina."
You know, when I’m watching Shakespeare, I understand everything that’s happening without difficulty. But when I try to summarize it afterwards, it’s always super-complicated. A topic for another post, perhaps.

The centerpiece of “Much Ado About Nothing” is the most epic slut-shaming in fiction. Slut-shaming is wrong, based as it is in male control over women’s bodies, but I’m just going to take it at face value in this instance and skip the feminist sanctimony. (Those who know me are popping their monocles right now, but seriously, criticizing this play for the characters' fixation on virginity is like criticizing the characters in "King Lear" for having a monarch instead of a democratically elected leader.) It’s a realistic scene for the time and culture in which it was written, but it feels inappropriate in a modern setting, especially after Whedon opened the movie with an example of thoroughly modern sexual behavior.

The opening scene of Beatrice and Benedick’s one-night stand, while not in the play (I don't think), is a good artistic and narrative choice because it gives context for their hostility that a modern audience can understand and relate to. At the same time, it's a bad choice because it contradicts the central conflict of the play, which can’t be updated to modern times because it reflects incredibly antiquated notions about women, sex and politics. Not that we don’t have slut-shaming in the modern world, but it’s generally accepted by mainstream society that women will have sex before they marry--and also we don’t live in a society where political power is hereditary and depends on men being reasonably certain that their children are actually theirs, which means our value of virginity is largely symbolic rather than a political and societal necessity for the peaceful transfer of power.
Values may change, but all people from across the ages can agree that incest is creepy.
However, although Whedon didn’t entirely succeed in adapting sixteenth century sexual mores to the present day, every other aspect of Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing,” including that gorgeous language, survives and thrives in the modern update. The fact that the sexual stuff doesn’t translate well makes it all the more astounding that everything else does: the prince and Claudio giggling over a text; the bastard Prince John and his girlfriend handcuffed with plastic zip ties; the official photographer ducking through the crowd to take pictures of the lords shaking hands; and especially the castle guards re-imagined as a group of bumbling 1970s-inspired cops, with the sunglasses and the mustaches and everything. It’s a jarring moment when Claudio starts screaming at Hero for her sluttish ways, but it’s only jarring because the experience up to then had been such a pleasant immersion in beautiful imagery and beautiful language. I didn’t know I was so into the movie until I was taken out of it.

If “Much Ado About Nothing” is playing near you, you should go and see it. If you only know Whedon from his genre work, I think you'll enjoy this more intimate glimpse of his skills as a filmmaker. And if you don't know Whedon at all and just want to see a good Shakespeare movie, you'll be more than satisfied with this fun, and yes, sexy adaptation.

Plus, it's shot in black and white, and nothing makes me feel more grown up than watching a movie in black and white and actually enjoying it.

Final Grade: B+. Weird tonal problems aside, it's a good movie. Recommended for fans of Shakespeare, romantic comedies, witty repartee, and Joss Whedon.

Did I mention Nathan Fillion plays Dogberry? It takes a very particular kind of geek--one versed in scifi, online culture, and Shakespeare--to know just how awesome this is.

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