There are few minds out there like Joss Whedon’s. I mean really, when you’re filming a movie like The Avengers, a movie that winds up becoming one of the highest-grossing in history and sets all sorts of box office records, and after you complete principal photography on it, you go on a contractually allowed vacation, you decide to make a Shakespeare movie, in your house, with a bunch of actors you know and love, in black and white, in 12 days?
Seriously, who does that?
Regardless of the craziness of the endeavor, Whedon proves himself to be better than anyone else I’ve seen at adapting Shakespeare’s immortal words to a modern-day setting. He doesn’t go for elaborate visuals like Baz Luhrmann and he doesn’t try to transpose in modern concepts where they don’t belong…also like Baz Luhrmann.
Indeed, apart from the modern California setting and one major change in the opening that fundamentally colors how you view the main characters, Whedon plays it entirely straight, relying on his actors and their gifts to get the point across.
So our story then: after fighting in an unspecified war, Benedick (Alexis Denihof), his friend Count Claudio (Fran Kranz) and their “prince,” Don Pedro (Reed Diamond), along with the prince’s no-good brother Don John (Sean Maher) and his companions Conrade (Riki Lindhorne) and Benicio (Spencer Treat Clark) head to the house of Leonato (Clark Gregg), governor of Messina, where the overjoyed governor declares they will stay for a month.
The men arrive and Claudio is instantly smitten with Leonato’s virginal daughter Hero (Jillian Morgese) who the prince proposes to woo for him. Benedick meanwhile clashes wits with Beatrice (Amy Acker), Leonato’s niece who’s just as cynical as he is. Seeing this, the prince, Hero, Leonato and Claudio conspire to make the two of them fall in life. But what does the scheming Don John up to?
Seeing this movie was an experience in and of itself. I had to travel with my friend and sister to a theater in downtown Chicago to see this movie–a limited release–where we met up with another friend I hadn’t seen in almost 2 years. The trailers attached were either foreign or art-house movies, so it was totally new. The theater was on the fourth floor of a mall and I had to climb a broken escalator to get to it. So yeah, an experience never to forget.
That aside, the film itself is highly, highly enjoyable, no question. Anyone who knows about Whedon’s oeuvre knows he likes to work with the same actors and the easy feel between cast and director is noted and very lively. More than that, this film is also hysterical; particularly with Nathan Fillion’s Dogberry–the head constable of Messina–the film gets a lot of laughs and it’s the physical comedy that delights as well as the words. Denihof has two great sequences in a row that back me up here.
The cast really gets into this material, giving it everything they’ve got. Denihof and Acker are brilliant, combining caustic wit with hidden depth, Kranz is fantastic being lovelorn and brooding, and fans of Gregg’s work on The New Adventures of Old Christine will be delighted to see him at his daffiest.
Whedon seems to be digging at, through this setting and this play, just what the notion of love, sex and happiness might all mean. It’s an interesting little meditation and I’d recommend it without a second thought, especially if you were confused by Shakespeare in high school.