Much Ado About Nothing is the comedy by William Shakespeare that gives us the phrase, “a Beatrice and Benedick relationship”, i.e. two people who loathe each other so much, it’s obvious they have the hots for one another. For those who don’t know what I mean, this play has in many ways been the basis for many successful a TV series, like Cheers, Moonlighting and Northern Exposure.
Josh Whedon’s film version of this Elizabethan rom com is the sort of movie where whether you like it or not will depend on whether you like it or not. I know that sounds ridiculous, but what I’m trying to get at is that it’s the sort of movie where you might like one actor’s performance, but your friend won’t, whereas your friend might like another’s performance that you find to be pretty awful; or you’ll like a scene that others will find lacking, whereas the scene they like will give you apoplexy. In other words, this version of Much Ado… Is not a success by any means, but it’s also not a failure. It has some wonderful moments, with others that fall quite flat. It’s not unentertaining, but it never quite comes together in a wholly satisfactory manner either. I guess what all this means is that it is what is termed…uneven.
The roles are filled with actors one might usually find on network TV with the somewhat bland and safe talents that the likes of ABC, CBS and NBC usually prefer (HBO and Showtime thespians were noticeably absent). None of them give a great performance. At the same time, with some exceptions (like Sean Maher as Don John, he of the truly dull line reading), no one gives a bad one either. Most of them get the job done. The exception to all this might possibly be Nathan Fillion and Tom Lenk as the Inspector Closeauish Dogberry and his assistant, both of whom not only wrest every possible physical laugh from their roles, but also wrest every possible laugh from their often clever line readings as well, reminding one of the great James Cagney and Joe E. Brown stealing the 1935 film version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
The strongest aspects of the film are the ones that are mainly visual. This includes a truly lovely, dream like party, where everyone slowly gets drunk while two acrobats strut their stuff on a trapeze above them while someone sings Shakespeare’s poem “Sigh No More, Ladies” to a lovely tune by Whedon himself. In addition, Whedon and his two leads (the slightly more than adequate, but hardly inspired, Amy Acker as Beatrice and Alexis Denisof as Benedick) make the most of the de rigueur slapstick that usually accompanies the scenes where the two erstwhile lovers eavesdrop while the others around them play out the central joke (or “meet cute” aspect) of the play. There are also some nice visual gags here and there (Benedick and Claudio forced to share a room filled with dolls and other frilly accoutrements and Dogberry and his assistant having “car trouble”).
Whedon, though, isn’t as successful with the love story between the two younger characters, Hero (Jillian Morgese) and Claudio (Fran Kranz). Again, both give solid enough performances, but neither are even quite as strong as Acker and Denisof. In addition, Whedon bungles the scene where Borachio sets up Claudio to “catch” his love cheating on him (it’s dramatized in a rather vague, fog like flashback that doesn’t allow you the full horror of what is really being done). The vigil scene over Hero’s grave (a key plot and character development moment) has been mostly excised. And finally, Much Ado… is one of Shakespeare’s plays where a woman is publicly humiliated by a man, but in the end, for some reason that is never quite convincing (and often feels even more humiliating for the woman than what was done to her in the first place), takes him back (see also The Taming of the Shrew, Measure for Measure and The Winter’s Tale, among others). There’s little one can do to make this turn work except to so fully commit to it and give it all the acting chops one can that the audience overlooks what is really going on underneath. It can be done, it has been done, but I can’t really say with a clean conscious that it is done here.
The rest of the film is a mixed bag. Like the acting, it gets the job done, but it never really rises above what it is and in many ways one can say the same thing about it as one can say about Baz Luhrman’s The Great Gatsby—it’s more an interpretation of the play rather than a successful production in its own right.
I know I’m supposed to love Sarah Polley’s new documentary, Stories We Tell. Everybody else seems to talk rapturously about it and people in the audience find it deeply moving. I wish I could feel the same way. I wish I could even understand why they are feeling the way they do about it. But for me, Stories We Tell just never connected with me emotionally.
The basic subject matter is Polley exploring the life of her late mother and the discovery that she, Sarah, is not really her father’s child, but the result of an affair her mother had. Now that certainly sounds like a fine basis for a riveting boulevard drama, but it takes so long for Polley to get to the meat of the matter, that all tension is wrung out long before the revelations start, well, revelating themselves. And I’m not sure I’m the only one who has some issues with this. One of the people interviewed even asks her why she’s making this film (which based on the movie up until then, seems like a very astute question). Her answer has something to do with her claim that she is interested in the stories we tell ourselves about our past and how they differ from one person to the next.
The only problem I have with this is that everybody’s story basically seems the same. No one seems to divert that seriously from the basic history and all the facts seem to be the same no matter who presents them. As far as I can tell, this is hardly a Rashomon type situation. So in the end, I’m back to square one and asking, as the character did, why Polley made this movie.