movie film review | chris tookey

Much Ado About Nothing

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  Much Ado About Nothing Review
Tookey's Rating
10 /10
Average Rating
7.12 /10
Amy Acker (pictured), Alexis Denisof , Clark Gregg
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Directed by: Joss Whedon
Written by: Joss Whedon Based on the play by William Shakespeare

Released: 2012
Origin: US
Colour: BW
Length: 107

Funny and cute.
Reviewed by Chris Tookey

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Summer in the cinema is normally all about expensive blockbusters. This year, there are at least 17 of them,. On the evidence that I’ve seen, most of them will find it hard, if not impossible, to earn back their massive investment.

So it’s especially refreshing in June to see a high-quality, unhyped entertainment that was made on a shoestring by someone who really loves what he’s doing.

It’s even more endearing when the film does justice to the finest writer in the English language.

William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing is one of his most popular comedies, and no wonder. It contains some of his best banter, a couple of involving love stories and comic relief that actually succeeds in being funny.

In the theatre, I’ve seen great productions starring Maggie Smith and Robert Stephens, Judi Dench and Donald Sinden, and Kenneth Branagh and Samantha Bond. The 1993 film Branagh made with his then wife Emma Thompson wasn’t bad either. But I’ve never before laughed as much as I did at this version.

Some Shakespeare purists may be suspicious that it’s by the Hollywood populist who created Buffy The Vampire Slayer. Writer-director Joss Whedon is not the first person you’d expect to come up with the finest production of Shakespeare in many years.

Whedon is hardly a household name, but he’s the hottest property in Hollywood right now. His Summer blockbuster of last year, Avengers Assemble, was a monster hit, the highest-grossing movie since Avatar. His script for The Cabin in the Woods was the wittiest in the horror genre since… well, ever, actually. Toy Story, which he co-wrote, is one of the best-loved family pictures Pixar has produced.

One thing not well known about Hollywood’s new favourite son is that he’s an Anglophile. As a boy, he attended one of England’s best schools, Winchester College, and one of his A-levels was in English Literature. It made a lasting impression. His 10 year-old son is called Arden, in honour of Shakespeare’s mother’s maiden name, the publishing house for Shakespeare plays, and the forest in As You Like It.

Whedon’s new version of Much Ado is charming, funny and wonderfully entertaining. It even appeals to those who would normally reach for their gun at the mention of Shakespeare. For my money, it’s the first 5-star movie of the Summer.

Seeking relaxation after his blockbuster production of The Avengers Assemble, Whedon and his wife Kai Cole shot the movie in 12 days in their own home and garden in California, with actors Whedon cherry-picked from his TV hits. They speak the original words but with American accents. They wear modern dress but carry cellphones, drive cars and scoff cupcakes. It ought not to work, but it does.

English teachers are going to weep with gratitude at the way it makes Shakespeare not only accessible to the young, but also funny and sexy. It’s also a welcome reminder of just how much Shakespeare has contributed to our entertainment culture.

Probably created in 1598 or 1599, Much Ado established the template for romantic comedy. It features a pair of lovers, Beatrice and Benedick, who apparently can’t stand each other and can’t chat without exchanging insults.

What their friends realise is that these sharp-tongued, defiantly unromantic adversaries are ideally suited. So their male friends stage a conversation they know Benedick will overhear, in which they talk of Beatrice’s love for him. The women convey exactly the same misinformation to Beatrice about Benedick.

This merry war of wit between the sexes has influenced every other romantic comedy, from Tracy and Hepburn’s classics through to the Woody Allen, Nora Ephron and Richard Curtis films of our own time.

It even underpins some entertainments outside the genre, from Hitchcock’s thriller The 39 Steps, with an apparently incompatible man and woman literally manacled together until they fall for each other, through to Whedon’s horror series, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, in which the tough-guy heroine gradually succumbs to the much-maligned Spike.

One of Whedon’s many achievements with his new production is to show that Much Ado is the inspiration for screwball comedy. This genre started with Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night and developed with movies such as Bringing Up Baby and Some Like it Hot. It’s still with us in the form of The Hangover, Silver Linings Playbook and Desperate Housewives.

Merely by leaving a lot of empty wine bottles around, Whedon cleverly establishes why the characters in Much Ado do ridiculous things and experience violent mood swings: they’re all, ever so slightly, drunk.

Most of the play is romantic comedy, but it takes a dramatic turn when the heroine’s best friend Hero is unjustly accused of infidelity by her fiance, Claudio, and believed by some of the characters to be dead.

When the tone darkens and Beatrice instructs Benedick to “Kill Claudio”, the unexpected transition makes perfect sense in the light of her alcohol intake – as does Benedick’s dismay.

Just as central to the way romantic comedy has developed is the kind of sparkling repartee that Shakespeare invented in Much Ado, all beautifully performed here, whether Benedick is insulting his future bride as “my lady Disdain” or she is pretending not to listen while he is yammering on: “I wonder that you will still be talking, Signor Benedick: nobody marks you”.

Their war of words has helped to inspire innumerable film romcoms, from You Can’t Take It With You and The Front Page through to Juno and Midnight in Paris.

There are two more ingredients that Shakespeare pioneered in this particular comedy. One is the Malapropism – the misuse of English by characters too dumb to know they’re making fools of themselves. The word is named after Mrs Malaprop, who appears in R.B. Sheridan’s eighteenth century comedy The Rivals, but Shakespeare invented the breed two hundred years earlier, in head of security Dogberry, brilliantly played by Nathan Fillon as an accident-prone bumbler who’s convinced he’s smarter than Colombo.

The other innovation in Much Ado is the incompetent police force. There isn’t a single one of Dogberry’s security men that isn’t a bungler. They’re the ancestors of innumerable progeny, from the Keystone Cops through to the students in Police Academy.

Arguably, the most delightful innovation in Shakespeare’s Much Ado lies in his creation of Beatrice, the archetypal strong woman, ready to make her way in the world alone if necessary, and sharply critical of lesser specimens of the masculine gender.

She’s a pre-feminism feminist, the antecedent not only of all those smart but abrasive women played by Katharine Hepburn, but of action stars like Ripley in the Alien Movies (one of which, Alien Resurrection, Whedon wrote before he was fashionable) – and indeed Buffy.

Many intellectuals look down on romantic comedy as an inferior form of drama, but Much Ado covers identical themes – alleged infidelity, pretending to be dead, the thirst for revenge, the need for reconciliation – to the ones Shakespeare covered in his tragedies, Othello, Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet and King Lear.

The difference in Much Ado is that Shakespeare looks for happy endings and emphasises the power and desirability of love and marital commitment. Although he drops hints that the multiple marriages at the end of Much Ado may not all be plain sailing, they still have the powerfully feelgood effect on an audience that they did in the sixteenth century.

Of course, there have been great productions of Much Ado before. Whedon’s unique achievement is to go in a diametrically opposite direction from the one you’d expect from someone whose last film was a Hollywood blockbuster. He has gone for an endearingly domestic-scale approach that clarifies the text and quickly makes you forget that the characters are speaking in sixteenth century English.

He and an excellent cast not only succeed in doing justice to Shakespeare’s talent. They make the Bard look bright, funny and fresh. They allow us to appreciate Shakespeare’s genius with new eyes, and it’s a wonderful sight.

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