‘Much Ado About Nothing’: Or even less

June 5, 2013

much ado

I want to applaud Joss Whedon’s “Much Ado About Nothing” for all the things it does right, and I will.

But Whedon’s side project – between his various TV and Marvel-related entertainments – gets one thing unfortunately wrong: It’s never very funny.

Much of that has to do with casting. Indeed, Whedon’s cast – which consists of actors who might be considered part of Whedon’s ever-growing stock company – does contain the right actor, but in the wrong role.

So instead of Nathan Fillion as the haughty, romantic Benedick, we get Alexis Denisoff, whose next unmannered line reading will be his first. His snarky head-to-head with Amy Acker’s sharp-elbowed Beatrice – the two antagonists who eventually fall in love with each other – lacks bite. Acker might as well be pitted against a body pillow, so shapeless and soft is Denisoff’s presence.

Let me first talk about what Whedon gets right. His “Much Ado,” shot in his home from a Shakespeare comedy he trimmed and tailored to a modern-dress interpretation, was filmed between shooting “The Avengers” and editing it. It’s a little hard to imagine someone like, say, Michael Bay using his spare time to make a little passion project that amounts to almost two hours of talk.

It also happens to be two hours of talk that’s in black and white, another huge no-no these days. It’s always good to offer something entertaining that also expands the viewer’s horizons.

“Much Ado” is one of Shakespeare’s lesser comedies, a mix of dark and light that ultimately focuses on two romances. The main attraction is the clash of Beatrice and Benedick, two sharp-tongued types who are too smart for their own good and can’t see that the things they think they detest in each other are actually what attracts them.

There’s also the story of Claudio (Fran Kranz) and Hero (Jillian Morgese), courting until an enemy of Claudio and Benedick’s boss plants rumors that Hero has a history as a slut. So the question becomes whether Hero can salvage her honor and win back Claudio.

It all turns out to be (insert title of play here), of course. As other critics have pointed out, if Hero can’t prove her innocence, then this play becomes “Othello.” But because she does, it’s a comedy.

Or it would be with another actor as Benedick. Fillion shows up to create actual laughs as Dogberry, a constable called in by the lord of the manor, Leonato (Clark Gregg, who also would have made a good Benedick). Where others play Dogberry for broad shtick, Fillion amuses because he plays the character’s dimness with total seriousness.

Unfortunately, Denisoff sounds like a prodigious undergraduate tackling Shakespeare for the first time. There’s a note of self-congratulation in his readings, an actorish quality that calls attention to itself. He lacks the brio or wit to make the role funny, the way Kenneth Branagh did in his 1993 version.

Still, this is a generally lucid and understandable Shakespeare, done without fuss in a modern setting that gives the story a contemporary feel, without losing the poetry and charm of Shakespeare’s language.

But a Shakespearean comedy like “Much Ado About Nothing” needs more humor than this one provides. It’s a film that is easier to admire than to embrace.

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