Tuesday, July 2, 2013

House Party: Much Ado About Nothing

Joss Whedon's Much Ado About Nothing

Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing evolved out of the parties Whedon used to throw for the casts of his television show Buffy the Vampire Slayer and its spin-off Angel: he got his actors together for Shakespeare readings, which he would cast and direct. To make Much Ado About Nothing, Whedon reserved his week off – the twelve days in between wrapping his horror movie Cabin in the Woods and starting production on the Marvel Comics flick Avengers – and invited his company from past projects to rehearse and film the picture, using his house and grounds as the location. (He gives the play a modern day setting.) The product is a Joss Whedon home movie – two scenes were shot during real house parties – and it has the cheerful desperation of a lot of talented people winging it while trying to hide from one another what their gut tells them: that they’re not going to pull this thing off.

The material is not the problem. Much Ado About Nothing is one of Shakespeare’s most loveable comedies, and it’s also completely within Whedon’s range. It may not have vampires and demons (Buffy the Vampire Slayer; Angel) or space-age cowboys and aliens (Firefly; Serenity), but it distills the qualities that make Whedon’s supernatural and extraterrestrial epics such compelling mythographies of real life experience. It’s a comedy that brings romantic happiness to the brink of disaster and back again, where erotic desire can be the source of complete wreckage as well as matrimonial union, and jealousy, hatred and rage are the shadow-presences of the profoundest love. That’s the attitude Whedon took towards high school in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, where the emotions of the teenage characters were so volatile they combusted into paranormal activity. On Angel, where the titular vampire with a soul (played by David Boreanaz) moves from the suburb of Sunnydale to Los Angeles and fights the criminal underworld of monsters as a sort of noir detective, the point is that everyone, not just Angel, has a demon lurking within – it’s the nature of being human. Whedon has a way of putting horror and science fiction movie scenarios in quotation marks while at the same time showing you the real emotion underneath them. The bad guy in the first season of Buffy is a centuries-old vampire called The Master with an apocalyptic endgame. He’s pure camp, but when a prophecy surfaces that Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) will die at The Master’s hands Whedon plays against all our expectations: Gellar channels the heartbreak and fury of a sixteen year-old girl forced to stare down her own death. The tone turns on you – suddenly you’re watching the real substance of nightmares.

The play is full of these kinds of emotional shifts, where comedy falls belly-first into utter despair only to miraculously sort itself out by some feat of human resilience. It’s set at the court of the wealthy nobleman Leonato, whose friend the prince, Don Pedro, has recently returned from war with his right-hand men Benedick and Claudio, as well as his bastard brother Don John, to whom he has been recently reconciled. At the center of the play are two interlocking courtships, that of Claudio and Hero, Leonato’s daughter and heir, who become engaged towards the beginning of the play, and Benedick and Beatrice, Leonato’s niece. Benedick and Beatrice are the kind of lovers whose professed contempt of one another is a covert expression of their desire. Their sparkling banter is the clue; “they never meet,” Leonato explains, “but there’s a skirmish of wit between them.” When Leonato, Don Pedro, Claudio and Hero play a trick on them by persuading each that the other is madly in love, it brings that desire to the surface. The game is devised as a distraction during the week before Claudio and Hero are to marry, but Don John is laying his own trap at the same time: he deceives Claudio and Don Pedro into the belief that Hero is unfaithful, playing on the rage and sexual jealousy already simmering barely below the surface of Claudio’s romantic contentment. The two schemes are inverted mirror images, just like the doubling of love and hate throughout the play. Much Ado reaches it emotional pinnacle at the midpoint: Claudio spurns Hero at the altar, nearly killing her with mortification and grief, and Beatrice and Benedick profess their love for each other, although Beatrice’s anger towards Claudio, Benedick’s closest friend, nearly separates them until Benedick agrees to challenge him to a duel. The inextricability of the destructive and romantic impulses is both the play’s theme and the problem it poses: these characters have to untangle themselves, to learn to love without the power of the emotions consuming them.

Jillian Morghese (Hero), Clark Gregg (Leonato), and Amy Acker (Beatrice)

Whedon has some extremely smart interpretations of the material. He makes the juxtaposition of the two love affairs his main subject, the idealistic free-fall of Claudio and Hero’s young love, with all its surface intensity, like the dramatic peaks and gulfs of high school relationships, and the love negotiated by adults (Beatrice and Benedick) who have more at stake and therefore more to lose, where courtship is a process of chipping away at one another’s defenses. And he makes the prior romantic association of Beatrice and Benedick, implied in the script, explicit – the movie opens with Benedick (Alexis Denisof), sneaking out of Beatrice (Amy Acker)’s apartment after a drunken one-night stand. (The look on Acker’s face as she listens to him creep out seems to say, “I’m too old for this.”) The way Shakespeare plots Don John’s deception has always been a little tricky, because it’s so improbable – he has his henchman Borachio seduce Hero’s lady-in-waiting Margaret at Hero’s window, calling her by Hero’s name, and Don John invites Claudio and Don Pedro to watch from below. In Whedon’s movie, Margaret (Ashley Johnson) is Borachio (Spencer Treat Clark)’s on-again off-again girlfriend, but he’s always been in love with Hero, who is out of his league; when he invites Margaret to dress up in Hero’s clothing, and calls out her name during sex, it’s like the way James Stewart dresses up Kim Novak as Madeleine in the second half of Vertigo. It’s such a brilliant reading I can’t imagine the play being done any other way.

Much Ado About Nothing is a curious movie for Whedon because even in his genre work he doesn’t set out to make cult projects – his television shows, and his movie Serenity, which vindicated the terrific material from his series Firefly when the network cancelled it after one season, take popular culture seriously precisely because they show its continuity with the emotional timbre of things like Shakespeare. And yet Much Ado is unmistakably a cult project – it’s B-movie Shakespeare. The picture has some memorable images – including a trapeze act during the masquerade scene – and two lovely pop settings of the play’s songs (“Sigh no more, ladies, sigh no more” and “Pardon, goddesses of the night”) that Joss Whedon created and his brother and sister-in-law, Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen, performed. But they are overshadowed by some extremely basic problems. For one, Whedon hasn’t completely worked out how to accommodate cameras and microphones in his own home, and the movie’s shambling, DIY aesthetic is a little disconcerting for a director this accomplished. The camera shots and editing look improvised, at times arbitrary. It’s distracting and it doesn’t serve the actors, who don’t always know where to look while they’re on camera. The black and white cinematography, which creates a conceptual link to film noir and screwball comedy, doesn’t help; the flat, synthetic look of the digital technology is cheapening. (It's also poorly lit.) Whedon would never have let something this disorganized and uncoordinated on the air, where his most experimental episodes – Buffy’s musical episode, the silent “Hush” and the surrealist “Restless” – were some of his best. Even his web special Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog was tighter than this.

There’s no real movie here, just pieces, and Whedon's company of actors, who have negligible previous experience with Shakespeare, are stranded without substantial direction. (I felt badly for them.) Most of the performances, the bad ones (Jillian Morghese as Hero, Riki Lindhome as Conrade) as well as the enjoyable ones (Reed Diamond as Don Pedro, Fran Kranz as Claudio, Clark Gregg as Leonato), are under-developed; they go slack. Alexis Denisof’s lead performance as Benedick is particularly disappointing; he’s barely playing a character. (He actually had the blueprint of the part in his performance as Wesley, his character on Angel, who deepened over the course of the series from a foppish fool, the show’s comic relief, to its most devastating antihero.) His Benedick is an insolent playboy, an interpretation that picks up on his retort to Beatrice that “I am loved of all ladies, only you excepted,” but doesn’t scan with the rest of the play. Benedick is almost squeamish about the finer points of sexual love; he withdraws into celibacy as a protective shell.

Tom Lenk (Verges) and Nathan Fillion (Dogberry)
The strong performances are genuine fun, and there are several. Nathan Fillion and Tom Lenk are an inspired comic pair as the play’s clowns, the constable Dogberry and his second Verges, who Whedon conceives as film noir cops who’ve wandered into a Laurel and Hardy baggy pants routine. (Buffy fans might recall Lenk from his part as Andrew, a member of the evil nerd trio in Season 6.) Lenk is scrawny and awkward next to Fillion’s fumbling, oafish tough guy; one of the funnier moments in the movie is when Fillion accidentally tries to put on Lenk’s tiny jacket. And Sean Maher is a compelling and extremely sexy Don John – it’s a smart idea to turn his henchman Conrade into his girlfriend, to whom he delivers his vow to make mischief as a form of foreplay. When he is welcomed to court by Leonato, Don John gives a curt thanks and explains that “I am not a man of many words,” the line that became the touchstone for Keanu Reeves’ sensitive performance in Kenneth Branagh’s Much Ado About Nothing (1993) as a man who can manipulate his brother’s friends but can’t keep up with the verbal theatrics of their quick-moving wit. For Maher, the key line is his declaration that “though I cannot be said to be a flattering honest man, it must not be denied but I am a plain-dealing villain.” His villainy is his passion, his plain dealings his pride; his birthright may have robbed him of a life in the spotlight, but he’s a born politician and he knows it. (That's what stings.)

But the single most remarkable thing about Joss Whedon’s picture is Amy Acker, whose Beatrice is so extraordinary she often seems to be in another movie altogether. Acker is best known for her role on Angel as Winifred Burkle, the physics grad student Angel and his crew rescue from an oppressive alternate dimension. (She was a regular on the show from Season 3 through its Season 5 finale.) Like Alyson Hannigan on Buffy, Acker got all kinds of colors out of the neurotic good girl (and closet genius), including the darker, suppressed desires beneath all that bubbly amiability, and it helped that she had the kind of wide-eyed ingenuity that made her look like a teenager well into adulthood. But she’s in her mid-thirties now and she’s sloughed off that rosy girlishness; her face is taut, even tired, as Beatrice, and her eyes are alert, both curious and wary. Most actresses would focus on Beatrice’s humor and her giddy extroversion, but Acker builds her performance on the sharp, lacerating tensions inside all that playfulness, the fear and the anger that mirth disguises. She makes you aware of all that Beatrice doesn’t say, all that she can’t say; you sense this is a woman whose own wit has begun to choke her.

Amy Acker as Beatrice
Beatrice’s big dramatic scene, when she charges Benedick, now her lover, to kill Claudio, is in the middle of the play, and when Acker gets there you realize everything that came before has been building to its emotional velocity – she soars through it and leaves you breathless trying to catch up to her. She plays the scene, with its extraordinary emotional crescendos, for Beatrice’s inner confusion: she finds true romantic communion at exactly the moment her worst cynicism about men has been confirmed. (When she cries “O that I were a man!” because she can’t challenge Claudio herself, you realize that she’s also channeling the new vulnerability of her own womanhood now that she has finally accepted a man’s love; her fear sharpens her fury.) And her pratfalls are pure comic poetry; they unravel new layers of character. When Denisof uses slapstick, it’s like he’s trying to find his character. He can’t keep up – often he can’t do more than feed her his lines – but in a way it doesn’t matter, because she plays their scenes for the conflicts it shores up within herself, and that, rather than the chemistry between them, becomes the heart of the film. She holds up their first scene, with its peerless banter (“What, my dear Lady Disdain! Are you yet living?” “Is it possible disdain should die while she hath such meet food to feed it as Signior Benedick?”), by playing it to the flowers she’s arranging in a vase; she looks like she’s about to strangle them. It’s a sublime performance.

More than anything Much Ado About Nothing is a love letter to Joss Whedon’s fans, who would follow him anywhere: it invites them into his home, into one of Whedon’s fabulous cast parties. I would respect that more if I didn’t think Whedon was also counting on his fans to accept a lot of actors struggling to find their legs for an ensemble performance, and a handful of good ideas for a concept. And while I’m tickled by the details of the shoot, which were circulated as the earliest press for the picture, they also became a guarantee that, in a sense, the film would be too small to fail. This Much Ado is not much more than notation. It's a blueprint for a movie that might have been an electrifying vindication both of Shakespeare’s material and Whedon’s vision.

– Amanda Shubert is a graduate student in English at the University of Chicago. Previously, she held a curatorial fellowship at the Smith College Museum of Art in Northampton, Massachusetts, working with their collection of prints, drawings and photographs. She is a founding editor of the literary journal Full Stop.

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