Maybe I don’t get Shakespeare. But then Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, both Kenneth Branagh’s and Ethan Hawke’s Hamlet, Branagh’s Henry V, and Ian McKellen’s Richard III are among my favorite movies. So maybe I don’t get Shakespeare comedies. Possibly. But I think it more likely that I just didn’t get Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing. And by not get it, I mean not like it.
This universally praised film had major problems to me. Firstly, the thrown-together romance between the couples, Beatrice and Benedick, and Hero and Claudio. I didn’t buy it — why? There was no chemistry at all. Think about that first encounter through an aquarium between Romeo and Juliet in the Luhrmann production. To me, that is the best example of love at first sight ever depicted on film. Now that’s a high bar to reach, and I don’t expect Much Ado About Nothing to reach it. But it must at least head in that direction. Throw me a bone.
The lack of chemistry among the principal couples bleeds into another problem, which is that though the actors perform their lines with liquid alacrity, there is something flat and dead in the effect. One of the many critics lauded the film’s occasionally “lyrical” play of words — and I do not disagree. The strong point of this film is the fluid, effortless delivery of Shakespeare’s lines by the entire cast. On this count Much Ado is about as good as it gets with filmed Shakespeare — and hence all the acclaim. Even I found delight in a few of the exchanges. But film is a visual medium, and for me the cast members largely fell into a vacuum.
Part of the visual problem that I could never quite get over was the out-of-place modern dress. We have here a prince and a count, and they’re dressed as any standard businessman? Seeing those contemporary suits, belts and ties really threw me off. I didn’t get it. Even the language itself seemed completely discordant with the contemporary, workaday appearance and manner of the cast, especially the male cast. I had no reason to believe that I was watching a count or a prince, or that anyone — without any further explanation — was returning from war. Huh? More like returning from lunch.
This is where the aforementioned Romeo + Juliet, Richard III, and Hawke’s Hamlet succeed so well — they are able to provide a valid context for the removed setting. Much Ado utterly failed on that front.
Another visual problem was the black & white photography. I like B&W photography in film, but here it raised a question: why? Critics have stated that it recalls classic 1930’s and 40’s screwball comedies such as His Girl Friday. Except it doesn’t. The action of the film somewhat might, except again the modern 21st century setting ruins any of that sense. Want to recall a classic Cary Grant film? Try costumes of that era.
Which brings up another problem. The physical comedy only half-worked. Though the actors performed their lines admirably, I found the rolling around in the bushes banal. I grew up as a big fan of Three’s Company — and one of the masters of screwy physical comedy John Ritter. Much Ado badly re-trod this comedic space.
One more big problem: this movie lacked cinematic breadth. Think Henry V, both Hamlets, Romeo + Juliet.
Even the Branagh Hamlet, though set mostly inside a large throne room, offered a grand cinematic vision almost entirely lacking in Much Ado About Nothing. I do give credit to two very nicely done scenes where Whedon woke up and realized that he was making a movie. And I understand that this is a romantic comedy, so it is apt to have a more intimate scale. But still there must be scale.
In part the poor use of B&W is to blame, but more broadly, I think the director was short on vision. The Wikipedia entry on the play states that it “combines elements of robust hilarity with more serious meditations on honor, shame, and court politics.” I found no such meditations here, and no such robustness. 3/10