This lovely adaptation by Joss Whedon of the comedy by William Shakespeare is breezy and charming and has a playful, sexy spirit. An unusual movie for the director of monster blockbusters like The Avengers, and creator of TV shows like Buffy: The Vampire Slayer, it's everything his bigger projects are not. In fact, it's everything most American movies are not. In elegant, if provocative, black and white, with mostly unknown (by me) television actors, unabashedly sexy (a true rarity) and featuring Shakespeare's unadulterated words. Mr. Whedon is some sort of freak.
He made this movie in his house in twelve days, while he was waiting to start post-production on The Avengers, (the third highest grossing movie of all time), feeling lost in the impotence of creating gazillion-dollar spectacles over which he paradoxically feels he has little control.
Without interference from studio blockheads and with his own money, he has made a delightful movie, with total command of tone and spirit. Choosing to transplant the Italian town of Messina to sunny, Mediterranean-looking Santa Monica, he liberates Shakespeare from the stuffiness of costume drama, moats and castles. As Shakespeare adaptations go, this the most laid back I've ever seen. The classy black and white cinematography by Jay Hunter makes it sexy and sophisticated, as leisurely as a luxury car commercial (this is a good thing). His uniformly good cast (with a special nod to the excellent Amy Acker) speak the lines as colloquially as possible, without sounding like Valley girls. In order to help those of us who don't always get Shakespeare's iambic drift, he resorts to good visual ideas and many welcome screwball moments. He has fun bringing Shakespeare up to date, where music comes from iPods, people get text messages announcing the arrival of some duke or another, and the meanies smoke pot. It really works.
The comedy itself is the usual Shakespearean romp. I won't give you the Cliff Notes, but two ornery antagonists, Beatrice and Benedict, set in their ways, impossible to woo and marry, are tricked to fall for each other. Meanwhile, Beatrice's cousin Hero is supposed to wed Claudio, but some bastard sibling of this noble family decides to ruin the wedding, as far as I understood, out of sheer malevolent spite. Whedon understands that there are real heartbreaking consequences in a bride's dishonor and when the play gets dark, he lets the pain really sting. Perhaps in our present time of Kardashian-style hos we don't easily understand that casting doubt on a bride's honor was truly tragic in Shakespeare's day. Hero would have tarnished the family name and she would have been untouchable, probably sent off to fester in a convent for the rest of her life. So the tears that flow are right. Same goes for Beatrice's deep frustration at being a woman living under male rules. There is nothing she can do to help her cousin in distress; her outrage at her own female powerlessness is authentic, and still resonant.
So for all of you who are bitterly complaining about how bad Man of Steel is, do like Joss Whedon, take a break from all the blockbuster madness, and give Shakespeare a try.