Movie review: 'Much Ado About Nothing,' 2.5 stars
Much Ado About Nothing
Directed by Joss Whedon
Starring Amy Acker, Alexis Denisoff, Clark Gregg, Fran Kranz, Jillian Morgese
Playing at Walter Reade Theatre, Elinor Bunin Monroe Film Center, Landmark Sunshine
Joss Whedon deserves credit for departing from his usual big-budget fair to take on this modern-day adaptation of "Much Ado About Nothing," which he filmed in black and white at his California mansion.
If that sounds like a bit of a backhanded compliment, it's only because the high-concept enterprise, which uses Shakespeare's original language, never justifies its existence.
"Much Ado" is one of the Bard's most lightweight plays, with its stories about quarreling lovers centered on rumormongering, spying, mistaken identities and other manipulations. It's centered on classic romantic comedy archetypes, most notably Beatrix (Amy Acker) and Benedict (Alexis Denisoff), who insist they are too worldly and smart to fall in love.
Whedon transports the action to California circa the present, and captures his home in clear black-and-white, with images that evoke tasteful luxury. The men dress in sharp suits and the women don chic, casual dresses, engaging in their games of deception against a backdrop of glamorous lawn parties and interiors that belong in the pages of Better Homes and Gardens.
Present-day Shakespeare adaptations that maintain the original language are an inherent gamble. The cognitive dissonance can be overcome by excessive style (see Baz Luhrmann's "Romeo + Juliet"). Or, if the narrative is so intricate and timeless, it seems endlessly flexible (see "Hamlet," starring Ethan Hawke, in which the famous soliloquy is performed in a Blockbuster).
Here, Acker and Denisoff are the standouts in a cast that's just about evenly divided between actors who seem comfortable with Shakespearean prose and those whose line-readings recall a high school production.
Whedon, who also wrote the screenplay, has selected a play with an inherently empty core and his take just isn't fresh enough. Its exploration of gender politics and gossip-driven deception is too specific to be transplanted to the present, leaving us to experience a "Much Ado About Nothing" filled with anachronistic characters and plot developments that simply ring false in the 21st Century.