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

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents - David Strat­ton

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

Or­ange.

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.

Much Ado About Noth­ing

Amy Acker is a delightful Beatrice in Joss Whe­don’s

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