Much Ado About Nothing (3.5/5)
The work of Bill Shakespeare has undeniably inspired many works in the realm of film, but very rarely do you see a straight adaptation of his work. Hollywood often cloaks and refashions his prized plays in ways that distill the majesty of his words. Recognizing the power of Shakespeare’s words and staging, writer/director Joss Whedon simply transposes Shakespeare’s comedy of errors, Much Ado About Nothing, to present day with its basic foundation and dialog intact. For those who dozed off in English class, Much Ado About Nothing tells the tale of two romantic factions forging over a long weekend. Benedict (Alexis Denisof) and Beatrice (Amy Acker), a tenuous duo who partake in witty verbal sparring matches, resist the persistent ideal of romantic courtship. After burning one another, they refuse to give into society’s romantic expectations, cynically masking their heartbreak as noble acts of defiance. Counteracting their anti-courting posture is the budding romance between Claudio (Fran Kranz) and Hero (Jillian Morgese), whose aggressive romantic gestures churn the stomach of the aforementioned anti-love couple. Devious outside forces tempt their hand in bringing Benedick and Beatrice together, while malignant evildoers plot the destruction of Claudio and Hero’s love with whispers of infidelity. Obviously, hijinks ensue.
Shot in gorgeous black and white, and featuring a game cast, none of which top Nathan Fillion’s oafish detective, Whedon’s take on one of the Bard’s seminal comedies offers more sexual zeal than the source material lets on. Running rampant throughout is a sizzle that most adaptations circumvent entirely. The chemistry and passion Whedon elicits from his performers is potent, especially the ongoing verbal bouts between Acker and Denisof, but a seductive appeal and fine performances can’t keep Whedon’s vision from feeling disjointed and underwhelming. What’s shocking to me is the lack of artistic detours taken by Whedon, who always seems interested in deconstructing cherished archetypes. If there was ever a writer/director out there that could breathe new life into Shakespeare without sacrificing its integrity, it’s Whedon, but his playfulness never elevates the material to new heights. The setting is flat, rooting interest waxes and wanes, and jarring tonal shifts make it seem as if Whedon is only interested in scratching at the surface of love and its complexities. Rather, Whedon seems content with lodging an old tale into a modern setting without reworking the context, leaving us to wonder if we shouldn’t have just read the play instead.
The Way Way Back (4/5)
If cinema has taught us anything over the last 50 years, it’s that teenage boys, especially ones that aren’t socially equipped, have a rough fucking life. It’s bad enough to have to deal with nagging parents and random boner attacks, but to do it alone is a cataclysmic ordeal. The Way Way Back more or less confirms this notion. Being that this is a coming of age tale, we already know our story revolves around a teenage recluse drifting aimlessly through life without an anchor. Life’s victim: Duncan (Liam James), a fourteen year old boy who can never find the right words, if any at all, to say in social situations. Duncan’s social limitations grow heavier when he spends the summer at his mom’s boyfriend’s beach house ,where he is coerced into behaving “normal”. Per usual, the grownups surrounding Duncan are far too concerned with sticking a round peg into a square hole and end up alienating the boy they intend to help. Establishing little traction with his mom and her boyfriend, as well as the pixie next door played by the adorable AnnaSophia Robb, Duncan quietly cruises the populated beach town seeking refuge from the lame. Shelter comes in the form of a defunct water park called Water Wizz, which is run by a charming loser named Owen (Sam Rockwell). The free-spirited nature of Owen , as well as his candidly freaky employees, empowers Duncan to find the words he can never compose.
Written and directed by Jim Rash and Nat Faxon, both of which are terrific comedic character actors and recent Oscar winners for their part in crafting The Descendants’ screenplay, The Way Way Back is a typical coming of age tale built around atypical characters. The distinction is important to make considering it’s the characters who make The Way Way Back an endearing and charming observation of teenage loneliness and growth. The film’s center of gravity is Sam Rockwell, who molds a lazy schlep on paper into a charming, misunderstood savant. Rockwell’s performance is effortless and welcoming, as he provides us with a memorably infectious character that feels authentically invested in the growth of our protagonist. The earnestness Rockwell installs in his character feeds itself throughout the film, with the first time directors admirably under playing the coming of age story beats while deftly finding an equilibrium between comedy and drama without delivering a false note. Being that they are first time directors, there are a few rough edges present. Most notably the acting strength of Liam James is called into question because every once in a while he seemed ill prepared to deliver emotionally dense lines. But even then, his unpolished presence grounds the film, where as other films of this nature would’ve replaced him with a Taylor Lautner type and eliminated a shot at credibility. Thankfully, The Way Way Back is a genuine film that’s willing to remind us of the people who molded us so many years ago.