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The Bard in SoCal

by Ross Douthat

A review of Much Ado About Nothing

Discussions of movies like Joss Whedon’s new version of Much Ado About Nothing — filmed in his own well-appointed California home, remarkably enough, during a lull in the making of the ever-so-slightly-more-expensive film The Avengers — often revolve around how successfully Shakespeare can be adapted to non-Elizabethan periods of history, contemporary or otherwise.

But that framing misleads a bit. If the question is whether the Bard’s plays can be successfully picked up and dropped intact into the New York of 1950 or the America of 2013, the answer is mostly no, and the would-be adapter is usually better off keeping the story but writing his own lines — à la West Side Story or even 10 Things I Hate about You. The trick to pulling off a non-16th-century Shakespeare, rather, is to eschew historical exactitude and create a setting that can partake of both the original and some other, half-invented time and place.

Or at least that’s been true of recent Shakespeare screen adaptations. The best of them have created settings that feel suitably unmoored from actual recorded history: the savage “Verona Beach” of Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, part modern Rio and part Renaissance Italy; the fascism-infused alt-1930s of the Ian McKellen Richard III; the ancient-modern hybrids that worked for Julie Taymor in Titus and for Ralph Fiennes in his recent Coriolanus. The disappointments have let their settings distract, in their uneasy fit with the material, from the matter of the story: The version of Hamlet that cast Ethan Hawke as a prince of corporate America, and Denmark’s succession as a boardroom struggle, was a notable example of what such failure looks like.

Whedon’s Much Ado, which is drenched in SoCal ambience — a wedding spot overlooks a golf course, couples bicker in a custom kitchen and flirt beside a glassy swimming pool — falls somewhere in between: It’s an almost-success whose quasi-contemporary location sometimes fits the play but sometimes feels a little too contemporary.

There are aspects of the setting that work brilliantly with the material. The drunken weekend party, where everyone is constantly pouring someone else a drink, is ideally suited to Shakespeare’s comedic mix of passion, folly, misinterpretation, and reconciliation. The military and political background to the story doesn’t quite work with the Southern California backdrop, but it’s not actually that relevant to the plot, so it’s easy to set aside those incongruities. And some of the scenes that Whedon stages — particularly an extended masked-party scene, with acrobats swinging from the darkened trees — hit the precise “this could be any era’s revels” sweet spot that the film is aiming for.

But there’s also a little too much that’s on-the-nose contemporary in the way Whedon tells the story. The film opens with a shot of Beatrice (Amy Acker) and Benedick (Alex Denisof) waking up in bed together, in a brief fling that’s supposed to be a prelude to their subsequent warlike courtship, and this choice and others locate the story a bit too firmly in the post-sexual-revolution present. While a sexy, earthy vibe is entirely appropriate to Shakespeare’s material, a world of relatively casual sex simply doesn’t fit with the play’s crucial, unalterable plot twist, in which not merely chastity but actual virginity is treated as something worth prizing, worth disowning someone over, and even worth dying for.

The maidenhood issue is not a small incongruity, and at times it threatens to undo the impressive work of Whedon’s cast — highlighted by Acker’s brilliant embodiment of Beatrice (she rather overshadows Denisof’s Benedick), Clark Gregg as her uncle, Sean Maher as the sinister Don John, and Nathan Fillion’s put-upon, recessive, and entirely hilarious Dogberry. The actors are mostly Whedon’s favorites from other projects (Acker from television’s Angel, Gregg from The Avengers), and they combine the necessary candlepower with an effective “where have I seen him?” obscurity. (Only Fillion — the hero of the canceled Firefly, and now the star of the crime show Castle — is anything close to a real celebrity, though after this performance I would happily sign a petition to get Acker more A-list work.)

What ultimately saves their efforts from the reverse-anachronism problem is the fact that Whedon chose to shoot in black and white. That choice balances the post-1960s bed-hopping vibe with a screwball 1930s quality, and effectively decontemporizes the movie just enough to make it entertain more than it distracts.

A screwball quality, and a hint of noir as well. Part of the thrill of Much Ado About Nothing, as with Shakespeare’s later romances, comes from the way it employs the plot devices of his tragedies — particularly Romeo and Juliet and Othello — but turns them, after a period of turmoil, to happy, resurrective ends. It’s to Whedon’s great credit that his sundrenched black-and-white, with its echoes of Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles, helps bring that element of darkness out — even if, as always in such adaptations, the ultimate credit goes to the genius who included it in the first place.

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