It can’t be avoided, I’m going to have to compare. I mean, I admire the heck out of Joss Whedon for getting this project done AND released to theaters—that alone must have been somewhat of a task. However, I guess the stock that comes with directing one of the highest-grossing films(a little superhero movie from 2012 called “The Avengers”)of all time soothes the savage studios just a bit. And what he’s done with one of William Shakespeare’s most delightful comedies, is create a decent introduction for “modern audiences”(read “uncultured masses”)to one of the Bard’s most accessible works. He sets it in current California, so it’s not a period piece. He populates it with pretty and handsome young faces, and some of them are even familiar(“hey, there’s Clark Gregg from the Marvel franchise!”). It was shot in black-and-white, in less than a fortnight, on a miniscule budget, at the director’s own Santa Monica home. And it does maintain the feel of an artist’s “weekend project”(not a bad thing)throughout. It’s even pretty good, to top things off. But it’s just not Kenneth Branagh’s sumptuous 1993 version, and I’m sorry if you don’t consider that approximation fair. The bottom line is: if I’m going to recommend a film version of this play, this is not the one. It’s not a bad choice, but you can easily do better. Still, there’s more pluses than minuses here, methinks.
Comparison time. Amy Acker is a fetching and mostly solid Beatrice, and Alex Denisof is a handsome and mostly adroit Benedick. But their verbal sparring matches should be infectious—and they are not. Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson made their verbal jousting an auditory feast a score ago, and the 2013 duo just can’t match up. I’ve read a lot of praise for Nathan Fillion as the “constable” Dogberry, and he actually does come off quite well by underplaying the role. However, I remember similar kudos for Michael Keaton’s over-played version of this character back in 1993, even though personally I found him somewhat too much and difficult to decipher dialogue-wise. But, let’s face it, like the character of Bottom in “A Mid-Summer Night’s Dream”, Dogberry is a scene-stealing role. If you’re an actor of any dexterity whatsoever, you are going to make this befuddled officer fun. Denzel Washington commandingly embodied Don Pedro in ’93, and Reed Diamond’s ’13 incarnation is just not in the Oscar-winner’s league. And an okay Clark Gregg does an acceptable job with the role of Leonato, but has the unenviable task of being a follow-up to the renowned Richard Briers(who passed earlier this year at the age of 79). In other words, the cast of the 2013 version is acceptable, but not extraordinary(or very memorable), but I’ll admit that their performances may improve upon repeat viewings. Well, at least the new “Much Ado About Nothing” doesn’t sport a miscast and glowering Keanu Reeves.
Then there’s the issue of the modern dress and the introduction of a gun. Making Shakespeare contemporary has often worked like a charm in the past, and for a while it seems like it will be fine here too. But the brandishing of a firearm late in the proceedings brings everything to a halt with its deadly serious intent, and it made clear to me how the modern setting worked against the text. It recovers just enough when all is wrapping up, and there’s a delectable amount of frivolity in the party and celebration scenes, but the damage is done when that pistol appears. It belies the setting and the period—it’s a mood killer. Too bad.
Allow me to remind you again that this is a good review. But it was impossible for me to watch this and not look back. Apologies to Stephen King, this is not like re-making the recent “Carrie”—King’s no Shakespeare. Therefore, it becomes a lot more difficult to work against the printed page. “Much Ado About Nothing” could’ve benefited from a bit more verve. But if I was going to tell you to watch this one over the 1993 incarnation, it would be like recommending regional theatre over Broadway. The hard work and the gumption are there, but they simply can’t compare. However, if you must… Grade: B