Seriously, in a world where romantic comedies are either R-rated sexfests or direct-to-video beneath-my-notice nice tries, how many true romantic comedies are the studios releasing theatrically per year now? Two? Maybe three? Of which I see zero per year at most. According to my personal moviegoing records, the last romantic comedy I paid to see writ large was 2003’s Down with Love. It’s been a while.
If your high school’s William Shakespeare curriculum didn’t include this or any of the Bard’s other comedies, it’s a simple tale of how four characters become two couples through an obstacle course of battle-of-the-sexes exaggerated misconceptions, devious matchmaking, outright lies, one fake death, and bad love poetry. Claudio and Hero are the young, impressionable, love-at-first-sight couple; Benedick and Beatrice are the older, cynical grown-ups burnt too many times and resolved to remain single forever. Also playing key parts are extended family, one bad apple, his younger sidekick crabapples, and local law enforcement as comic relief.
Seven things that spoke to me:
* Shakespeare returns to the big screen! In the ’50s and ’60s you couldn’t swing a popcorn bag in a theater without hitting a Shakespeare adaptation. In the past decade Shakespeare has largely avoided American theaters, except for Ralph Fiennes’ widely shunned Coriolanus and, stretching the boundaries here to come up with an example #2, Gnomeo and Juliet. Book adaptations are common because Hollywood is no longer interested in creating its own intellectual properties, but literary adaptations are a shrinking minority, especially outside Oscar season. The viewing public can always use more reminders that works more than ten years old can still have merit.
* Joss Whedon cast reunion! The movie is one massive Whedonverse major summer crossover event. Stuffed into a single upper-class clown car of a production are Alexis Denisof (Wesley from Buffy/Angel), Amy Acker (Fred/Illyria from Angel; Whiskey from Dollhouse), Fran Kranz (Topher from Dollhouse; Marty the stoner hero from Cabin in the Woods), Reed Diamond (Mr. Dominic from Dollhouse), Clark Gregg (S.H.I.E.L.D.’s own Agent Phil Coulson), Sean Maher (Dr. Tam from Firefly), Nathan Fillion (the Captain Malcolm Reynolds!), and Tom Lenk (Andrew from Buffy). For extra credit try catching married Dollhouse writers Maurissa Tancharoen and Joss’ brother Jed as a chanteuse and her piano man. (I could’ve sworn I saw a one-second headshot of Joss himself as a partygoer, but I might’ve imagined it.) That’s one heck of a party even if they’re not obviously having a complete blast making a film together.
* Comedy! Comedy! Comedy! The cast’s sense of fun camaraderie is contagious and clicks well with Shakespeare’s farcical moments. Denisof’s Benedick jumps through hoops of slapstick lunacy when he’s trying to eavesdrop on a conversation clearly meant for him to overhear, and downright old-school goofy when trying to impress a woman he suspects is into him. While honorable mention goes to the internet duo called BriTANicK, in potential breakthrough roles as two bumbling watchmen, the comedy crown belongs to Fillion and Lenk as chunky Constable Dogberry and his weaselly partner Verges, reimagined as wacky buddy-cops who do a mean impression of CSI: Miami.
* Fewer plot holes to forgive! In a summer whose repetitive blockbuster motto has been “Keep Calm and Don’t Think”, Much Ado doesn’t plead for your willing suspension of disbelief. At worst, it asks only that you extend the courtesy of accepting that several characters can be convinced that a woman might die of shame. That’s as high as the hurdles reach, well within standard parameters of literature from previous centuries. Unlike your higher-profile releases from the last two months, this film is guaranteed not to spark a furious 2000-reply internet debate about causality or realism.
* It’s not in 3-D! Not only is it proudly in 2-D, it’s in stark black-and-white, a truly revolutionary technique that today’s young viewers refuse to watch, except that one time they sat through The Artist because of the reviews, but then wouldn’t stop complaining for three days. The cinematography isn’t necessarily aiming for film noir, Orson Welles experimentation, or adventures in drastic chiaroscuro. It’s just this fun retro choice they made. Worked for me.
* The moral of the story! To wit: perhaps members of one gender shouldn’t be quick to generalize about the other. Women aren’t all thoughtless harlots; men aren’t all stoic egotists. That’s oversimplified by far, but much of the original play hinges on men too ready believe that women will easily betray them, and on women who learn the hard way that men sometimes aren’t boorish louts…though other times they really are. Okay, perhaps that last part is less than revelatory and the men in general suffer a more unflattering light than the women. To a certain extent, I suppose this play was the perfect match for Whedon’s sensibilities.
* Dance party ending! Remember when movies had these? Without irony? It’s about time a Shakespeare adaptation went there.
Parents might exercise caution before dragging their kids to see it due to a couple of Mad Men-level scenes of adultness. Otherwise, if you’re the kind of viewer who tires of CG explosions and lives near a large American city with one or more art-house screens, buying a ticket for Much Ado is a simple vote of confidence for cinemas that dare to show something besides glossy two-hour toy commercials. I wish other high-profile creators with Whedon’s clout felt the same urge to indulge in such offbeat exercises.
To answer the burning question that MCC is always happy to verify: no, there’s no scene after the Much Ado About Nothing end credits, but it includes one party game for discerning geeks: peruse the names in the hundreds-strong “Additional Cast” list and see how many you recognize. It was practically a big-screen word search puzzle. In addition to Jed and Maurisia, a cursory skimming netted Joss’ other brother Zack, Cabin in the Woods director Drew Goddard, and Buffy/Dollhouse director/producer David Solomon. Recognize five or more names and you’re a Much Ado end-credits puzzle champion!