It occurs to me that there are a few instances of me starting out reviews apologizing for not meeting the expectations of the collective cultural consciousness or even simply the niche of what I would consider my fellow film-geek contemporaries. Upon reflection, I’m not sure why I feel the need to do this. After all, having independent views on art should be celebrated, especially if someone is at the very least taking the time to understand why they feel certain ways about storytelling in various methods. But the fact is, I feel the odd need to do it again, this time in service of explaining the following academic no-no: I don’t get Shakespeare. Oh sure, I thought MacBeth was kind of cool, but unless you’re counting The Lion King or the Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode where they watched a dubbed German presentation of Hamlet, I haven’t gone out of my way to let the bard into my life. Perhaps it was the clinical, school-based setting in which I learned about him. Perhaps it’s my absolute hatred of Romeo and Juliet in its many, varied forms.
Oh sure, I understand Shakespeare. I understand his importance in theater/scriptwriting. I even understand that Francis Bacon might have actually written the plays under a pen name (thanks, Frank Cho’s Liberty Meadows for that little rant from Al the bartender.) But 400 years is a long time and his cult of personality gets a little overdone for my tastes. Plus, it’s just hard to get through. Reading it can be so utterly taxing and most film presentations seem to be built upon the foundation of making them absolutely boring and presenting little for modern context. Keep in mind, this is coming from a history major.
However, while I have drifted apart from Joss Whedon in the years since the Buffyverse was snuffed out from television, he has remained a vibrant and relevant figure in my cultural canon. Avengers and Cabin in the Woods were my number one and two films of 2012, respectively, bringing cleverness and originality into what could be well-worn tropes.
Now let’s be honest, a black and white version of a Shakespeare play filmed as a lark at someone’s house would normally not be picked up and distributed. The entire enterprise hinges upon the Whedon brand. So the question becomes, could Whedon make Shakespeare relevant to me through his direction, editing down of the material and updating the setting. The choice of the play is intriguing. It’s certainly not one of his most well-known pieces so it comes across as even more unique. Unlike Hamlet, it hasn’t been put in a sleeper hold by every English major with a chip on their shoulder looking to do “their take on it.” Casting Amy Acker, one of my official TV crushes, certainly didn’t hurt. Nor did the other familiar faces populating his cheapie.
As the film began, I had a tough time with the dialogue. It may be English, but for myself, listening to Shakespeare is often like watching Univision. Sure, I get every fourth word, but it’s so unfamiliar to my ears that a lot of it simply doesn’t register the way a conversation in modern, American vernacular would. Fortunately, I’m attuned with an ability to take what I am able to pick up and put it in context to understand what’s going on. By the end, I was doing a much better job of understanding what was being said and picking up on things. It certainly helps that, unlike my previous experiences with Shakespeare, the dialogue isn’t revered to the point that it’s the sole focus of the production. Whedon manages to inject personality into the film, picking up where the page leaves off. The incorporation of modern technology into gags absolutely helped my contextual grasp of the characters. And while not all the physical comedy works, Alexis Denisof does a good job with a lot of his and Acker does some exceptional bits out of nowhere. (It makes me wish she’d gotten to be more physical back when she was portraying Fred, a favorite back on Whedon’s series Angel, where she and Denisof had fantastic chemistry.) Nathan Fillion and Tom Lenk manage to make the most of their small roles. Clark Gregg surprises a bit since I really only recognized him from his small roles as Agent Coulson in the Marvel Universe films. Sean Maher and Garfunkel and Oates’ Riki Lindhome manage to be a little bit menacing… everyone does their job here and most of them are known for being in one Whedon production or another, from Buffy to Avengers. Let’s face it. It’s a big part of the draw.
The thing that I wasn’t sure always worked was the decisions in terms of the cinematography. For what is supposed to be one of Shakespeare’s comedies, it is filmed in a way that really doesn’t heighten the “funny” involved. Back when Kevin Smith made Clerks, black and white was an economic choice. But since Ado was shot digitally (and Whedon is far from being a guy selling his comics just to buy the film equipment), the decision to go black and white would have to be a purposeful one. Is it to try to minimize the “home movie” aspects of the film? Perhaps. Because as far as being an “artistic” decision, I don’t see purposefulness of it. It’s not like great comedy doesn’t exist in black and white, but typically when it is done in modern times, it’s part of creating a dark, noir feel and this is certainly far from a noir. There’s absolutely some interesting camerawork and compositions going on, but overall I wonder if it was the right stylistic choice.
Regardless, as a way to bring Shakespeare kicking and screaming into the modern world and as an entertainment, Ado is a success. I could see this taking the place of at least one Branagh movie in high school classrooms.
(Three damns given out of five)