An earnest but perplexing Santa Monica ‘Much Ado’

Josh Whedon’s “Much Ado About Nothing” features many actors from what we could call Tribe Whedon. The ensemble is mostly effective although setting the action in modern-day Santa Monica may be more of a mistake than that heavy dose of solar glare near the end.

In contrast to the 1993 Kenneth Branagh-Emma Thompson feature-length (110-minute) adaptation of “Much Ado About Nothing,” Whedon goes for snow whiteness in his cast. In the 1993 movie, multicultural casting was in place. Denzel Washington played Don Pedro of Aragon and Keanu Reeves was his half-brother the evil Don John. Branagh was Benedict and Thompson was Beatrice. Robert Sean Leonard was Don Pedro and Benedick’s close friend , Claudio. Michael Keaton played Dogberry.

The lack of multicultural casting for the Whedon film perhaps fits in well to the actual demographics of the locale of his movie, his Santa Monica home. The city’s name may be Spanish, but Latinos of any race make up only 13 percent of the population. Santa Monica is still an enclave of Caucasians with a whopping 70.1 percent of the population. You will see a smattering of Blacks who make up 3.7 percent and even an Asian or two 8.9 percent. So while some fans may grouse about the blinding whiteness of the Tribe Whedon, that criticism is more apt for something like the TV series “Firefly” and movie “Serenity” where China is supposed to have had considerable influence on earth in that version of the future. (Dear Mr. Whedon, I would love to introduce many Asian Americans to you over dim sum, ramen, kim chee or curry. Email me.).

If you get all your Shakespearean comedies mixed up, then here’s the basic plot for “Much Ado.” Prince Don Pedro (Reed Diamond) and his men, Claudio (Fran Kranz) and Benedick (Alexis Denisof), have just put down a rebellion led by Don John (Sean Maher). They come to Leonato’s (Clark Gregg) home for a visit. Claudio is in love with Leonato’s daughter Hero (Jullian Morgese). Prince Don Pedro helps Claudio woo her despite some machinations by Don John and the Claudio and Hero become betrothed. The marriage will take place in a week and during that time, Don Pedro, Leonato, Hero and Claudio conspire to make Benedick and Beatrice (Amy Acker) to fall in love.

Beatrice is Leonato’s niece and Hero’s cousin. Benedick and Beatrice have been more frenemies than friends, dueling with words and jabbing with sly jibes when manners might have called for more civilized conversation. They are the main interest of the play although Leonato and Hero are the focus of the action.

Don John has other ideas and makes it appear as if Hero has a lover’s triste with another man on the eve of the wedding leading to a most cruel denouncement of Hero by Claudio at the wedding. Beatrice asks Benedick to prove his love for her by choosing between his friendship with Don Pedro and her. This being a comedy, all turns out well in the end.

If you’re not familiar with the actors, welcome to Whedon’s world. Acker was in the Joss Whedon series “Angel” as Winifred “Fred” Burkle and then in the sci-fi series “Dollhouse” as Dr. Claire Saunders. Denisof was a member of the Buffyverse as Wesley Wyndam-Pryce as a replacement Watcher. He also would show up in “Angel.”

“Castle” fans might be disappointed that Nathan Fillion was not Benedict, but he is suitably hilarious as the malapropism-prone Dogberry. Fillion, of course, starred in the Whedon TV series “Firefly” and in the movie “Serenity” as well as being the “hero” of “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog.” Another alum of the failed “Firefly,” is Sean Maher who was Simon Tam, the doctor who is escaping with is mother.

Gregg is the puckish Agent Phil Coulson from “The Avengers” and will soon be the star of a new TV series. Yes, if you haven’t been under a rock, that’s a spoiler alert although I’m interested to know how Coulson did survive.

Whedon has assembled a good ensemble cast, but bringing a play that turns on chastity into the present requires a certain suspension of belief. This is a particularly sticky point that Whedon makes worse in his 108-minute film. Whedon inserts casual eroticism between Riki Lindhome (a minor cast member of Buffy) as Conrade who is now not just a comrade of the villainous Don John, but his mistress and the tongue wrestling in the kitchen between two characters while the others go about their tasks. These don’t establish a double standard between upstairs and downstairs so much as a casual attitude toward sex in this society in general.

Moreover, it’s hard to top the Branagh and Thompson chemistry which was like fire (Branagh) meets water (Thompson) brought to a cheery rolling boil.  In Whedon’s version, Denisof is more bemused curmudgeon and Acker is a spirited younger lass. Less is made in this version of Don Pedro’s attraction to Beatrice. We don’t feel the dull ache of love unrequited to contrast the love happily found. While Branagh’s movie was expansive, Whedon’s is claustrophobic–one of a tight circle of friends within a larger party crowd of Los Angeles hipsters.

Yet Whedon’s visual instincts work well with the contrast of the adult longings of the men, Claudio and Benedick, who are put up at Leonato’s in a room decorated with butterflies and stuffed animals. This particular scene might not have worked as well in color. Then when it comes to the famous scenes where the men and the women separately lead Benedick and Beatrice respectively to believe the one loves the other, Whedon’s staging is almost slapstick and yet believable.

Filmed in in 12-days, this trifle has substance and is well worth watching. Is there any genre that Joss Whedon can’t take on?

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