Summer Camp, by Josh Long
Shakespeare has been a fixture at the movies since – well, since the movies began. All of the Bard’s plays have been immortalized on screen at some point, most of them multiple times. They range from Kenneth Branaugh’s many (some might say egotistical) adaptations, to Godard’s weird King Lear starring Molly Ringwald – even the Bob and Doug McKenzie vehicle Strange Brew revolves around a Hamlet-inspired subplot. So should it be surprising that this new adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing comes from blockbuster director Joss Whedon? A cursory thought might dismiss Whedon as an action/sci-fi/fantasy guy who shouldn’t be handling classical theatre (let alone a light comedy with nary a spaceship or vampire to be found). Yet at a closer look, Whedon’s work has always had a theatricality that could lend itself to Shakespearean comedy. So does it work? Does this combination of art and artists result in something worth watching? Sort of.
By far the most interesting aspect of this film is the story of its making. After wrapping principal photography on The Avengers, Whedon and his wife Kai Cole decided they would film their own adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing. And so they did – they shot in their own house, in 12 days, using friends as the performers, some who are established actors, some who have never acted before. In light of this, you can think “so this is just their thrown together, home-made version of Shakespeare with their friends?” or you can think “wow, it’s cool to see that even big Hollywood people still like to get together sometimes and put on a show.” Truthfully, both of those attitudes extend to the effect of the film. There is a familiarity, simplicity and off the cuff quality to the film that makes it fun and lively. On the other side of the coin, off the cuff sometimes reads as unprepared, simplicity as shallowness, and familiarity as laziness.
If you’ve ever seen any Shakespeare (and hopefully you have) you know that plots are complex and complicated, and can take pages to synopsize. To be brief, (since brevity is the soul of wit, I think someone famous said) there are two main plots. One follows Benedick (Alexis Denisof) and Beatrice (Amy Acker), two individuals too witty for their own good, both with a seeming hatred for each other. They each swear never to marry, but each are tricked into thinking the other is in love with them, and they wind up falling in love anyway. The other plot follows Benedick’s friend and compatriot Claudio (Fran Kranz) who falls in love with the Beatrice’s cousin Hero (Jillian Morgese) only to be tricked by the evil Don John (Sean Mahler) into thinking that she has been unfaithful to him.
The story is adapted to a modern time period, but the film sticks to the original text. This is jarring at first (as it often is when Shakespeare is updated), and it mostly becomes comfortable, but some actors are never able to make it seem natural. Such is the risk of putting your friends together to put on a Shakespeare play. It’s shot in black and white, most likely because it’s quicker to shoot black and white; the choice doesn’t appear to be contextually inspired or enhance the story in any way. Still, it’s not lackluster adaptation. There are many moments that capture the full drama and comedy of the play. Amy Acker in particular is fantastic throughout; acerbic, wistful, furious and befuddled, she plays a wide range of emotions, always connecting to the audience, and without skipping a beat. Clark Gregg as Hero’s father, Leonato, shows himself to be at home in both the language, and the tone of the piece. And while he’s mostly a light-hearted character, he really flexes his acting chops in his fury over Hero’s slander. In a not-so-surprising casting choice, Nathan Fillion shows up as the constable Dogberry, and is delightful, as you would expect.
Still, despite a lot of great moments, the tone seems inconsistent. In his previous work, Whedon’s theatricality can lean towards camp, whether more subtle in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or full-on in Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. Camp doesn’t always work in Shakespeare, and when it does, it’s when it’s played to the rafters. Whedon’s Much Ado wavers unexpectedly between drama and outright silliness (sometimes throwing in sight gags in the midst of a serious scene) without fully balancing the two. Again, this is the sort of result you end up with when you and your friends get together to put on a show – it’s easy to make choices that everyone enjoys on set, but don’t work in the movie theater. Moments of camp also can undermine the comedy in the actual text – people still do Shakespeare because it’s still funny, and there are moments where a silly bit distracts from the comedy that’s already in the lines. The choice of location (again, chosen for expedience) also hurts the film at times. Some rooms or parts of the house fit perfectly for the scene, and others are distractingly incorrect. The film occasionally tries to overcome this by making light of it. For instance, there is a scene in which Benedick and Claudio are preparing to stay the night in a room filled with stuffed animals and dollhouses. It’s a humorous juxtaposition to see Benedick “rail against marriage” while sitting next to Barbies, but does it make sense? Why would Leonato, an aging widower with one full grown daughter, have a bedroom filled with children’s toys? The answer, of course, is that this is probably Whedon’s kids’ room, which is cute if you’re one of his friends, but distracting for general audiences.
Those things are fortunately not enough to ruin the experience of the film. The comedy comes out, albeit a little slow in picking up. The romance is genuine – Beatrice and Benedick’s final conclusion is lovely, not limiting itself to just being humorous. There are many good performances (and though several leave something to be desired, there are no bad ones). Whedon and his team clearly have a love for the text (which, though I have been unable to confirm this, I believe is performed unabridged and in its entirety), and are having fun bringing it to the screen. And even though the sparse 12 day production schedule may have resulted in some artistic hiccups, the reality of bringing a project of this caliber to life in such a short time is itself something to be admired.