David Stratton finds less than enough in Much Ado
Much Ado About Nothing (M) ★★★✩✩ Limited release This is the End (MA15+) ★★✩✩✩ National release from Thursday
ODDS bodkins! What’s afoot? Here’s a film, set in present-day Los Angeles, with a plot and dialogue adapted from a play written in the late 16th century. What’s more, the adapter, producer, director and supplier of the music for two of the play’s original songs is Joss Whedon, whose cult television work includes Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Dollhouse and Firefly, and whose two feature films before this have been large-scale sci-fi epics, Serenity and The Avengers. At the very least, then, you have to acknowledge Whedon’s gutsiness in tackling the tricky proposition of staging a Shakespearean comedy in modern dress.
Shakespeare is endlessly adaptable, his stories capable of being transformed into gangster films ( Joe Macbeth), post-war German melodrama ( The Rest is Silence, based on Hamlet) or Japanese epics ( Throne of Blood from Macbeth, Ran from King Lear). It’s one thing to take a basic plot and reinvent it in another time and place, but it’s tricker to retain the original text, which is what Whedon has attempted in Much Ado About Nothing. I confess I have mixed feelings about this sort of exercise; it can work brilliantly with the dramas — Richard Loncraine’s updating of Richard III to the 1930s was masterly — but I’m not so certain it works with the comedies. Not with this comedy, at least.
It’s not just that phrases such as ‘‘ by my troth’’ sound rather ridiculous when spoken by American actors in a contemporary setting, but key plot elements — such as Claudio’s horror to discover that Hero, his bride-to-be, is not a virgin — just don’t work in this setting. It would have taken a dramatic genius to make this sort of thing convincing and, whatever Whedon may be, he’s not that.
His use of television actors doesn’t always pay off either. The men seem at times uncomfortable with their lines, and the physical comedy — Benedick (Alexis Denisof) in the garden trying to overhear a conversation going on inside the house — is often clumsy. The women fare better; Amy Acker is a delightful Beatrice, whose early contempt for Benedick gives way convincingly to love — on her terms. Jillian Morgese is a charming Hero, though her reaction to the slander involving her virginity is, like many elements in the film, overdone. Whedon has fun with the comic cops, led by Nathan Fillion’s Dogberry, but again, in these scenes his touch is far from light.
The film is photographed attractively in black and white by Jay Hunter and starts promisingly with a silent sequence in which Benedick leaves Beatrice’s bed early one morning after what was presumably a onenight stand. This addition to Shakespeare goes some way to explaining why Beatrice is so hostile towards Benedick but it also makes a nonsense of the shock-horror revelation involving Hero’s chastity.
The last time I remember enjoying an updating of a Shakespeare comedy, retaining much of the original text, for the cinema screen was Kenneth Branagh’s little-seen Love’s Labours Lost (2000), which was augmented with Cole Porter songs; seven years earlier, Branagh had directed, in period, what now seems the definitive screen version of Much Ado About Nothing. Whedon’s version is a good try, no more.
FANS of Seth Rogen, and they are legion, will no doubt embrace This is the End, a comedy about the Apocalypse that Rogen wrote and directed with Evan Goldberg (his coscreenwriter on Pineapple Express). Vancouver-born Rogen has epitomised the stoner-slacker generation in comedies such as Knocked Up, though he failed to convince in
the superhero stakes as The Green Hornet. The simple premise of his directorial debut is that he plays himself, a pleasant, friendly fellow who likes to smoke weed and watch 3-D television in his plush Los Angeles home. The film begins as he meets another Canadian entertainer, Jay Baruchel (also from Knocked
Up), at the airport; they plan to spend a weekend having a good time and attending (reluctantly in Baruchel’s case) a party at the home of James Franco, Rogen’s co-star in
Pineapple Express, who lives in a spectacularly ugly Hollywood Hills house where the decor seems to have been inspired by A Clockwork
I was reminded of the days of the Rat Pack, when another group of famous actors (Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr, Peter Lawford) appeared together in films such as the original Ocean’s Eleven, clearly playing characters close to their own, characters for whom booze and broads were the order of the day. Women don’t seem so important for Rogen and his friends, but pot and pills are consumed in impressive amounts, and clearly no stigma is anticipated from this illegal activity; it’s all part of the fun.
Other ‘‘ stars’’ are present at the party, including Jonah Hill, Emma Watson (Hermione from the Harry Potter films, cheerfully trashing her squeaky-clean image), Paul Rudd, Michael Cera (whose behaviour with two girls in the bathroom presumably will only enhance his image), Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Rihanna and others. They’re all having a great time until nothing less than the end of the world occurs; vast sinkholes appear into which the unworthy plummet down into a fiery furnace while apparently deserving cases are sucked up into the sky enveloped in a bright blue light.
Inside the Franco compound, after most of the partygoers have been disposed of, there remain only six: Rogen, Baruchel, Hill, Franco, Craig Robinson and, a late arrival, Danny McBride, portraying himself as a potentially dangerous wild card in the pack. The survivors decide to pool their resources — food, water, booze, drugs, a Milky Way — and to share everything equally, though it doesn’t necessarily work out like that.
Much of the remainder of the film consists of scatological conversations as the increasingly freaked-out survivors are threatened by whatever is outside the house. Passages from the biblical account of the Apocalypse are read and argued over and the obsession with penis and bodily function jokes is unrestrained. A welcome diversion occurs in the return to the house of Watson who, after overhearing some pretty crude speculation about rape, attacks her hosts with an axe.
Self-indulgent is hardly the word to describe this scrappy affair, but fans of the group will probably go along with the adolescent humour and raunchy dialogue.
Later on the film veers into a spoof of horror films of another era, when a sleeping Hill is raped by a very horny, red-eyed demon and utters the immortal line originally spoken by Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby: ‘‘ This isn’t a dream, this is real!’’ As a result of this indignity, Hill becomes possessed and has to be subjected to an exorcism, again allowing for all kinds of familiar movie references.
Some may deplore the vulgarity and tackiness of this kind of film, mourning the absence of any kind of wit, style or substance. But that’s missing the point; This is the End, shambolic as it is, is a massive in-joke, aimed at a specific fan base that doubtless will embrace it with open arms. For the uninitiated, the rewards are sparse, though Franco’s whole-hearted embrace of the tacky premise deserves a measure of awed admiration.
Amy Acker is a delightful Beatrice in Joss Whedon’s