“Much Ado About Nothing” and the illusion of inclusion

What does it say about a film when I’m more focused on my experience watching it than giving over to the illusion onscreen?

It’s a question I thought about when leaving a screening of “Much Ado About Nothing” last night, a question that still lingers today as I continue to turn the movie over in my mind. To be sure, TV criticism is my bag, not film criticism, but my thoughts today center less on the film itself and more about the stunned reaction online when I expressed a few quick, albeit depressed, tweets about the movie on the way home from the cinema. That “Much Ado” wouldn’t be a de facto amazing experience seemed to puncture the reality of some who had yet seen the film.

But this is far from the only time that such a contrast between expectation and reality collides in a violent, upsetting manner. To be sure, I was in the camp of those thinking this would be solid piece of entertainment, even if not something that would transcend the genres of either Shakespeare or film. The combination of one of the world’s greatest playwrights and a modern-day storyteller who deployed dozens of actors with whom he has previously worked seemed like a can’t miss passion project. And yet, miss it did, and often so badly that my brain couldn’t compute the dissonance. I spent a majority of the film trying to get into the film’s wavelengths, only to discover there was barely a pulse to be found.

1371680480000-muchado-1306191825_4_3_rx404_c534×401.jpgTo sum up the film’s shortcomings is fairly easy: the modernization of the setting is never justified, actors were cast based on past work rather than textual need, and the entire endeavor is so low-energy you want to give everyone involved an espresso and a chance to start over from the top. For a play as funny as “Much Ado About Nothing” ostensibly is (and having seen a half-dozen productions of this, I can attest that parts are indeed supposed to be funny), there’s little mirth in this version of Messina. When comedic parts do arise, particularly in the scenes in which characters conspire to made Benedict and Beatrice fall in love, they feel transported from another universe rather than one facet of a single one.

Now, were this intentional, and Whedon’s intent to draw out some of the darker elements of the text in order to produce some unique commentary, none of this would be a problem. But there’s no reason, except “the costumes are cheaper and we don’t need to direct Joss’ house,” for this film to take place in modern times. Talk of the “wars” early on hint at the world of high-stakes corporate takeovers, but most of the time not only the text but motivations of the characters chafe against today’s environments. But the betrothment of Claudio & Hero feels incredibly antiquated, not because arranged marriages don’t still exist but because the movie doesn’t offer up enough on-screen textual clues that help illuminate the relationship between Leonato, Don Pedro, and everyone else the latter brings to stay at Leonato’s house, ostensibly because the Hilton down the street was completely occupied after the latest corporate acquisition.

This lack of context leads to a lack of purpose, leaving the audience to wonder what prompted Whedon to choose this tale to tell. The answer primarily seems to lie in his ability to simply produce it in the first place, rather than use the tale to offer some new insight into power, gender, sexuality, or any other topic in which his work is normally suffused. Whatever reasons Whedon had for casting Alexis Denisof and Amy Acker as the leads, it could not be because they were the most qualified people to fulfill those roles. Both have delivered stellar work in the past, but have neither the range nor the direction here to pull off anything that semi-annoyed ex-lovers who seem relieved to no longer be alone by film’s end. More alarmingly, if Whedon DOES think these two were best-equipped, even among his vast stable of Mutant Enemy actors, this suggests he either is blind to what makes these people truly shine or could not offer up a compelling enough backstory to give Denisof and Acker to produce solid work.

There are plenty who disagree on all the points above, and there’s no point it dissuading those for whom the film works as a film. Where I do take issue are those that defend the piece simply because of the people involved and the circumstances around which the film was produced. “But it’s Joss!” say some, as if that’s a legitimate explanation. “But look at that cast! They do Sunday Shakespeare readings! They drink wine! They do all that in the film!” say others. Look:  I’m sure it seemed like a smashing good idea to cast Nathan Fillion as Dogberry, but the moment he’s onscreen opposite Tom Lenk, it’s less chocolate and peanut butter and more oil and water. This is insular entertainment that undoubtedly delighted everyone involved and will undoubtedly delight those who would love to be in the inner circle seen onscreen.

“Much Ado” ultimate celebrates what it’s like to be friends with Joss Whedon, and sells an illusion of inclusion for the price of an admission ticket. That illusion is based on second-hand tales of those Sunday parties, tales which wormed their way into the mind’s eye of loyal fans and blossomed into experiences far more grandiose than the actual events themselves. This film promises, for some, the visual confirmation of those imagined experiences, with the added bonus of actual attendance for the rest of us. That’s why there’s little there “there” in the film, because having subtext is besides the point: putting the audience inside a house where all of their “Buffy”/”Angel”/”Dollhouse”/”Firfely” peeps are dancing while Joss’ brother/sister-in-law provide musical accompaniment is.

This illusion of inclusion is increasingly prevalent these days, as both celebrity culture and those who cover it offer up glimpses behind the counter and offer them up as actual acts of sharing. A relationship that feels bidirectional in fact merely reinforces the one-way flow, turning reciprocity into an act of public demonstration and, occasionally, humiliation. There’s a fine line between tantalizing an audience and frustrating them, which means as many interactions bridge the gap as much as reinforce it. “Much Ado” is ultimately about that illusion, and what’s fascinating is to see how little work those involved did to make that illusion more preferable to reality itself.