[Monkey See will be at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) through the middle of this week. We'll be bringing you our takes on films both large and small, from people both well-known and not.]
It's my position that there are films in the world the highest and greatest purpose of which is to be delightful. That the creation of delight is an entirely valid use of one's talent, and that normal humans have always known this, and it's only critics who sometimes forget because they are bombarded with so much false and forced delight. So certain projects exist in part to remind you that real delight is an end unto itself. Joss Whedon's adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing is exactly this kind of film, and because it's utterly delightful, it's utterly successful.
Famously shot in just 12 days at Whedon's own house, Much Ado features a lineup of some of Whedon's favorite actors, some of whom I will list with a partial but not comprehensive list of their Whedon credits, so please do not e-mail me your corrections/completions: Amy Acker (Angel and The Cabin In The Woods) as Beatrice, Alexis Denisof (Buffy, Angel, Dollhouse) as Benedick, Fran Kranz (The Cabin In The Woods, Dollhouse) as Claudio, Clark Gregg (The Avengers) as Leonato, Reed Diamond (Dollhouse) as Don Pedro, and — bless his heart — Nathan Firefly Dr. Horrible Buffy "Joey Buchanan" Fillion as Dogberry the bumbling constable.
Perhaps you know this story and perhaps you do not, but suffice it to say that Beatrice and Benedick have a complicated relationship which only gets more complicated when a gaggle of people show up at the house to create your basic chaotic Shakespearean craziness involving intrigue, revenge, and in this adaptation, a lot of boozing and some stuffed animals. More than that, it would be unfair to say, and also, I'd probably get lost in the plot myself.
There is, perhaps unsurprisingly, something warmly homemade about this film, which is sparkling and skillfully executed but also amiably loose in places. The house where it's set is blessed with a lot of big windows and it's shot in black and white, so there's a lot of very pretty employment of natural light, even in the interiors. It really does help this story, with all of the overheard conversations and whispered plotting, to be set in a palpably real place where you can see out the windows and up and down the stairs, rather than on a set.
Of course, a project this simple would be nowhere without the actors, and Whedon gets fine work out of just about everybody. Among my favorites, Acker is a believably wary Beatrice, Denisof is a frequently goofy but still very romantic Benedick, and Fillion should quite possibly play nothing but Shakespearean law enforcement officers for the remainder of his career.
As I watched Much Ado About Nothing, I had the distinct thought, "I wonder whether this is the future." Not the future, of course — I don't believe we're anywhere close to the end of the blockbuster, nor do I believe we're necessarily entering a new age of Shakespeare — but a big piece of the future. Big films have gotten so big, expensive films so expensive, that all of the risk has to be drained out of them, which often leaves behind a dried-out version of whatever was originally intended.
When you forgo so much of what the money buys, you don't have to hedge every single bet to make the money back. Are people going to go see a black-and-white modern-dress Much Ado About Nothing that features lots of well-liked actors but not a single movie star? Don't know. And while I haven't spoken to them about it, I guarantee you these people don't know either. But if nobody goes to see it, it's not a disaster, and nobody has to get fired, and no edict has to go forth that nothing that's anything like it must ever be done again.
So what I wonder about is whether labors of love might more and more find a way to capitalize on their economic scrappiness, on their Mickey-and-Judy let's-put-on-a-show-in-the-barn-ness, and might somehow rise, crowd-funded and passion-fed. Not just on the internet as we've all been told and all started to see, but even for people like the guy who just directed The Avengers and certainly had other options.
If your goal is spectacle, that often has to be expensive. If it's the exploration of fascinating settings, that sometimes has to be expensive. But delight does not have to be expensive; it simply does not. There's a bartender at our hotel in Toronto who delighted me with card tricks. Delight isn't just beautiful; it's affordable, too. And that might be just the competitive advantage it needs.