SXSW Critic’s Notebook: Much Ado About What, Exactly? Joss Whedon’s Progressive Bardolatry

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William Shakespeare

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Much Ado About Nothing




SXSW Critic’s Notebook: Much Ado About What, Exactly? Joss Whedon’s Progressive Bardolatry by Ted Scheinman

On Joss Whedon's 'Much Ado About Nothing' adaptation

April 5th, 2013 reset - +

“FOR MAN IS A GIDDY THING, and this is my conclusion.” So says Benedick at the close of Much Ado About Nothing, reaffirming one of the central “morals” of Shakespearean comedy while silencing his chiding bros: a sworn bachelor brought down by love for Beatrice, the woman he claimed to despise — a giddy thing indeed. Returning victorious from war, Benedick, his protégé, Claudio, and his prince, Don Pedro, descend upon the house of Leonato, governor of Messina, where they intend to rest a month, toasting their victories and doing their best not to fall in love. But giddiness is a catching thing, and Don Pedro leads the charge to bring down Benedick through love, all while Hero, the vestal of the play, nearly loses her rep for purity — and with it the love of her suitor, Claudio, and her father, Leonato — through the spread of some malicious gossip. But the ensemble soon finds the source of those poisonous rumors: the scheming Don John, bastard brother of Don Pedro, whose trickery is second only to Cupid’s. The bastard is duly shackled, the twin weddings are as good as done, the younger generation is lusty and the elder pleased to have settled their estates. A familiar arc. Conservative. Predictable. Hardly the sort of material that would tempt a known genre-saboteur like Joss Whedon.

Whedon’s remarks at the SXSW screening of his new Much Ado adaptation were on message and rather adorable. “Please love my movie,” he said while petting the screen with a gentle motion. When he wasn’t stroking objects, Whedon spent his spiel preempting questions about his adaptation. “Every reporter asks me, ‘Why Shakespeare?’” Whedon said. A beat. “For the money, obviously. This is the tent-pole for my summer, and you should look out for the sequel.” Yuks throughout the Alamo Drafthouse for Whedon. Yuks for the creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, nerd deity-turned-mainstream auteur, the feminist who brought us ludic horror deconstruction with The Cabin in the Woods, and who Marvel tapped to direct last summer’s behemoth The Avengers. This is not a guy who needs to beg for our love. But he sure seems to want it. Whedon is devoted to this film. Part of it is the Shakespeare thing — if you flub the Bard, well then your chops ain’t what you thought they were. The other part is a personal thing. Whedon filmed Much Ado in his own Santa Monica home, a setting he mines for claustrophobic angles and sweeping party scenes alike. This film doesn’t belong to Disney or Marvel; it’s Whedon’s baby, his current one at least, and he wants us to take note.

The real question, though, is not “Why Shakespeare?” so much as “Why Much Ado?” Whedon is a skilled inverter of gender norms, and his words on the origin of Buffy are by now axiomatic. Whedon wished to rebel against the kind of lazy plot wherein “a little blonde girl […] goes into a dark alley and gets killed.” Whedon wanted, he says, "to subvert that idea and create someone who was a hero.” Thus Buffy was born, and a cult audience for Whedon besides. Certainly Whedon has pulled off the same liberatory magic in various other projects, if in an increasingly localized sense — a well-timed one-liner or sneer from Scarlett Johansson in the first act of The Avengers, say, or the rather elastic definition of “virginity” in The Cabin in the Woods. So why not tackle something like Twelfth Night or As You Like It, comedies that involve cross-dressing and conspicuously matriarchal puppetry over men? Not to mention that Kenneth Branagh’s 1993 adaptation of Much Ado is something of a gold standard, even for Branagh. Many card-carrying film and theater snobs have called it Branagh’s best Shakespeare, better even than his Henry V — a hard act to top. So again: why Much Ado?

I have a working theory and will get to it in a moment, but first we should discuss the film, a present-day adaptation replete with Blackberries but done up in black-and-white cinematography that smacks of the late 1950s. The men wear black suits and narrow ties, and there’s a touch of Mad Men in Clark Gregg’s Leonato. But the monochrome palette shouldn’t repel fans of glossier Shakespeare updates such as Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet. The camerawork offers visual treats at each turn. When Benedick (Alexis Denisof, a Whedon regular) offers his first philippic against marriage, he is fidgeting with a dollhouse. The masque scene features a pair of acrobats who mimic each other’s bodies in gravity-defying poses that create a mirror effect, as though the uppermost tumbler is posed over her own reflection. It’s a rich, lovely moment that evokes the play’s undercurrent of deceit, even among the good-hearted matchmakers. This bit of black-and-white tumbling below the shimmer of party lights is worthy of Fellini, in tenor, if not in concept, and the movie largely sparkles with the same glow. 

Perhaps most important, Whedon plays the word-sex between Benedick and Beatrice (Amy Acker, another Whedon go-to and delight) for awkwardness and grim humor, not mere effluence of wit in the Branagh vein. There’s an evident backstory, and it’s right there in the text — Beatrice alludes to a romantic past in a remark to Don Pedro in Act II, Scene 1: “He leant it me awhile,” says Beatrice of Benedick’s heart, “and I gave him use for it.” Most adaptations simplify this material into gossip and sexual tension; here, the duo embodies a very real backstory in a stuttering battle of wits that suggests a reunion between exes, rather than casual frenemies. I’ve never seen any production pursue this angle, on stage or screen, but have always wanted to. Under Whedon’s direction, this dynamic is a marvel to behold. It’s a shame, then, that Whedon lapses briefly into lazy flashback hookup scenes between the two. (Hard to say whether these qualify as “sex-scenes,” though if they’re not, the third base coach is making a split-second decision.) Whedon’s good enough that he should realize when his principals have already done his work for him. 

As Claudio, Fran Kranz gets his first turn as ingénue in a feature film. Kranz positively crackled as the de rigueur stoner in Cabin (he also played Topher Brink, whiz programmer in Whedon’s Dollhouse) and is an excellent character actor. I had wondered whether such a sturdy comic talent was the right choice for Claudio, a figure relegated to the sidelines in so many productions. But Kranz is a joy here, imbuing Claudio’s speeches of love (so often played for bathos) with the marveling eyes of a neophyte in love, tempering his comic instincts to serve the role of hero-lover (or Hero lover) — take, for example, a precision-timed fist-bump with Don Pedro (Reed Diamond) that elicited a full minute of cackles from the Alamo crowd. (It bears repeating: this was a draft house, and Whedon himself said: “To those who are drinking, good call.”) Once Don John works his black magic, and Hero is falsely shamed as a whore, Kranz takes Claudio’s bumbling response and turns it into a split-personality monologue — the violence never unbelievable, the love never gone from his eyes.

Kranz’s deceptively mature realism is a far cry from Denisof’s own acting approach, which sticks out in the film as something jarring and old-fashioned. His style is declarative, smilingly stentorian in the Gregory Peck vein, as if he’s in a theater and needs to give the audience a beat. (It doesn’t help that Denisof, especially in black and white, looks like he stepped off a romantic comedy soundstage circa 1956.) Should we credit this dissonant if charming performance to Whedon’s under-direction of his lead? Or is something else at work here? I’m of the strong belief that you can tell more about a film from its apparent flaws than from its evident delights, and in this case I suspect the 1950s, square-jawed presence of a Denisof is precisely what Whedon needed to make this whole shebang a Whedon joint — a slippery, even fraudulent sense of filmic time-travel in service to a Shakespeare interpretation that not only tilts at sexual double standards but ups the narrative stakes in so doing.

I think I have an answer to “Why Much Ado?”. It’s a play about the microscopic inspection of a woman’s chastity, even as the men return from war full of boastful jokes about their ruttings in Venice. “O God that I were a man!” says Beatrice, who in the end must contract her vengeance through Benedick. (A far cry from Buffy-land.) But what to make of the glaring disparity between Benedick’s own off-stage dealings with Beatrice and his initial disgust for Hero, the putative whore? With this question, Whedon gives the lie to his cinematography — in an era when contraceptive funding has spawned a cottage industry in slut-shaming, Much Ado comes into focus, in all its black-and-white, virginity-inspecting glory. Sure, the guys take a poke at the occasional Blackberry, but the society of the film is essentially pre-digital; in terms of sexual politics, this is Rick Santorum’s America. (Or rather, Rick Santorum’s Messina!) I don’t mean to suggest that the film rides an activist agenda or is necessarily political in a central way. (Production began in 2011 — long before Sandra Fluke was a household word.) But when Whedon has a platform, he will use it one way or another. And the choice of Much Ado, with all those little men in black suits asking questions about chastity, highlights a sexual double standard that hasn’t gone away. 

By my reckoning, this is the first Whedon project that qualifies as a “marriage plot.” But note how the director dangles that plot before you, like a trick of the eye, like those two unlikely acrobats at the masque. The smoldering of various kinds that goes on between Beatrice and Benedick, and the darkness that lurks in each interaction, shun the lulling simplicity of the virtuous commedia. Remember — one of the first generic requirements of a comedy is that it ends in marriage. In Whedon’s rendition, the characters of Much Ado are likeable hypocrites, which is both original among film versions and faithful to the text of the play.

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