Sigh No More: Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing is Here

C: Ever since this project was announced after the secret 12-day filming process wrapped, people I know have been going pretty much crazy. Joss Whedon, considered by some a god? Doing Shakespeare’s finest comedy? With Nathan Fillion and the rest of Whedon’s repertory players? Ermagherd!

E: Does it even admit of a doubt that I swooned?  And once they released that stylish trailer?  Smelling salts, please!

C: Not being a passionate Whedonite myself (my favorite thing he’s done is Avengers) (*ducks for cover*), I wasn’t about to go insane when the film had trouble finding distribution, but I was looking forward to seeing it. I love the play, and I love Fillion.

E: I too love the play to distraction. And I’ve tried to bring you into the Whedonverse for years so I, at least, am tired of railing at you for your inability to see the brilliance of Buffy and Firefly.

C: Gotta love the implication that I’m somehow defective. That’s true sibling affection speaking, folks!

E: Always happy to enlighten you, sis.

C: As I was saying, this movie did strongly catch my interest, especially with its modern house-party setting and the use of black-and-white combining for a stylish aesthetic. My excitement levels would’ve skyrocketed if Fillion had been playing Benedick rather than the small role of Dogberry… but that would also have been an obvious and possibly less interesting choice.

E: While I’m glad that Fillion rescued the sometimes unbearably broad role of Dogberry, and while I can see why even he might have found it too much in his wheelhouse, he would have just knocked the hell out of the romantic lead.

C: Too true. But we’ll come back to that below. First, the overall verdict. After seeing it together with friends, E and I found we had pretty much the same impression: it’s not the best Much Ado ever, but with plenty to enjoy, it’s worth the price of admission. A few tweaks to the casting, and few altered directorial choices, would have pushed this into classic territory.

E: Exactly.  We enjoyed it.  We laughed.  We said the lines along with the actors.  It was really good; the frustration, of course, is that it could have been great.

C: Shall we start with a few of our favorite things? I know Nathan Fillion heads both of our lists…

E: Duh. I find Nathan Fillion one of the cutest and most adorable distractions ever (even in his current, slightly portly condition).  What I loved is the way he underplayed Dogberry.  Unlike Michael Keaton in Kenneth Branagh’s seminal film version, Fillion isn’t frothing at the mouth.  He’s an idiot, but a dignified one; he doesn’t scream his buffoonery even when insisting that we remember he’s an ass.

C: “Understated” and “Nathan Fillion” aren’t usually words one combines, but I’ll give you that he played the role with deliberation. His Dogberry is a sort of would-be hardboiled detective, trying to be savvy and suave but utterly lacking the brains. I adored it.

E: Ditto. I can’t really think of another scenario where the comic bit players’ scenes would be the most exciting part of a Much Ado for me, and yet there it is.

C: I had utter confidence going in that he would be great. One pleasant surprise, on the other hand, was Fran Kranz’s interpretation of the role of Claudio. Never having seen Dollhouse, Kranz was a new face to me.

E: I did watch Dollhouse (surprise, I love Joss Whedon!!) but since callous computer wizard is all I’ve seen him do, I was curious to see what else he had in his tank.  And to start with I got a big kick out of his double-take when Don Pedro offers to woo Hero for him.  About time someone acknowledged the screwiness of that proposition!

C: Yeah, why does that seem like a good plan to anybody? But overall, Claudio is a tough role on two counts. In the first half of the play, he’s thoroughly earnest and more than a little shmoopy. He’s lovesick and easily fooled. In this phase he can still be very likeable (Robert Sean Leonard makes him winsomely appealing, while Tom Ellis plays him as a Andy Dwyer-like loveable dumbbell). But after his accusation of Hero, it’s very hard to like, or even not hate Claudio.

E: Incredibly difficult.  This was our biggest debate after the film, the likability of this character.

C: Now, part of what made Kranz’s take on the role stand out to me was that I’d recently rewatched the 2005 BBC modernization (which stars Damien Lewis of Homeland fame, and is amazing, so you should all see it). In that version, the really unforgivable thing is that Claudio confronts Hero at the altar. Even if she’d really cheated on him, this public humiliation regarding a private matter seems unworthy for a decent man.

E: Yes, this deeply bothers me.  He doesn’t just leave her, he shames her so violently that pretty much everyone including her doting father wishes she were dead.  That’s a tough thing to stomach.

C: In the new version though, both Kranz’s acting and the original Shakespearean dialogue (helped by Whedon’s editing) emphasize that in Renaissance times, this wasn’t just a personal matter. No matter how we feel about it today, “modesty” and “purity” were part of the social contract when an upper-class lady married then, and when Claudio is given good reason to believe he’s been tricked by Hero and even more so by her father into marrying a woman who would bring him and his house shame, this becomes a public matter.

E: I get what you’re saying, I do, but it’s so hard from a modern standpoint to look at marriage from a contractual rather than a personal standpoint.  Not to mention the whole woman as chattel thing.

C: Oh, I’m not saying I like it as a plotline, just that this way of playing it made me see the situation from a new angle. Kranz delivers the accusations with such a halting voice, such a torn expression, that what we see is a man who’s been crushed and is going through the socially required motions, rather than a self-righteous member of the morality police. I never thought the role could be played that way — and that’s what new adaptations of Shakespeare are for, isn’t it?

E: Quite so.  I’ll have to watch it again to see if I can see what you see, because I hated Claudio even more than usual this time.  The modern setting made this bit of sexual politics feel evening more jarring than usual.

C: Hm, I think I’ve always found it loathsome and jarring. It was rewatching the 2005, which is entirely modernized — and the fact that Kranz doesn’t shout and flail like Robert Sean Leonard — that made me pay attention to Shakespeare’s language this time.

E: I guess I was just thinking more of Hero through the whole scene.

C: Um, yeah… that brings me to something in my “dislike” column. No particular malice meant toward Jillian Morgese, I’ve never seen her before, but gosh was she boring. It’s not a showy role, but Kate Beckinsale is proof that even using the original text, Hero doesn’t have to be the acting equivalent of a limp handshake.

E: It’s such a bland role that it’s very difficult to make something out of it — Beckinsale brings to the role a luminous sweetness the likes of which I’ve never seen.  I was probably less underwhelmed by Morgese than you, but mostly because I have bigger fish to fry with this adaptation’s casting.  Namely, Alexis Denisof’s wildly underwhelming Benedict.

He's got sort of a funny profile, huh?

C: I’m not sure about “wild,” but yeah, a bit underwhelming. At first I was interested when he played the unreformed Benedick as more of a winking, smooth-guy player than I’d ever seen the role done before. While Amy Acker as Beatrice settled into the role and got more convincing as the story progressed, though, Denisof did a better clown than an earnest man in love.

E: Even his clownishness was lacking, especially when compared with Kenneth Branagh’s fits of genius in the extended monologues.  In general I felt like Whedon had all his actors play their lines more straight and naturalistic than emotional, more calm and measured than mercurial; there was very little scenery chewing, and while in the case of Dogberry this was a wonderful improvement, it wasn’t a uniformly beneficial choice.  It’s all a little too sedate.

C: That’s a good point. Especially in the opening scenes, they’re consciously saying everything in a Very Casual Voice. Which is obviously aimed to make the Shakespearean language sound natural, but results in the cast underplaying moments where they should be animated.

E: Acker, for instance, sadly lacks Emma Thompson’s liveliness — would anyone really have called her a merry hearted lady, or feared her fierce tongue? But she makes up for this when she becomes convinced of Benedick’s love.

C: Yes, she definitely played the more earnest scenes most convincingly. The chapel scene, combining “I love yous” with death threats, she did particularly well.

E: On the other hand, I don’t believe for a minute that Benedick actually loved Beatrice.  Which is kind of a bummer, considering.  I get that it’s a difficult role to pull off, especially the lengthy series of monologues where he completely reverses his emotional state, but the whole movie kind of hangs on his ability to make us feel it.

C: And that’s why I can’t help feeling Nathan Fillion would have rocked it. As we’ve seen from Castle, he can go from immature playboy to man in love with utter conviction. And he’s got the witty banter thing down. Then again, we have seen it all before in Castle. Oh man oh man, if only they could do an episode where he and Beckett somehow have to play Benedick and Beatrice…

E: Like the Taming of the Shrew episode of Moonlighting!

C: But as Dumbledore says, it does not do to dwell on dreams; back to the movie. Whedon tries to provide an explanation for Beatrice and Benedick’s “merry war” by beginning the film with a flashback of Benedick sneaking out of her bedroom post-tryst, looking somber and regretful, while a similarly somber Beatrice pretends to be asleep.

E: Sigh.  That just seems so annoyingly obvious a tactic.

C: Okay, I mean, it does seem like a legitimate modernized take on Beatrice’s suggestive statement later in the play, regarding Benedick’s heart: “he lent it me a while, and I gave him use for it, a double heart for his single one: marry once before he won it of me, with false dice.” The trouble is, adding this scene doesn’t explain anything.

E: Yes.  That.  Exactly.

C: How did they end up in bed? Why do they both look sickened about it now? Why is he sneaking out? Were they drunk? Did they have a fight? This was a lost opportunity, I thought: an addition which was supposed to flesh out and give background to the characters’ emotions, but didn’t do the job.

E: Frankly, instead of making me more invested in their story, it forced me to doubt the truth of their fitness for each other.  Why did he leave?  Was the sex that bad?  Yes, we know they both have commitment issues (especially him) and given how much everyone guzzles through the whole movie there was sure to have been alcohol involved, but wow.  It doesn’t really feel like they thought the implications of that innovation through.

C: You’re right, it kind of casts the end of the play into doubt; will their romance “stick” this time? But maybe Whedon’s motivation was less to add character and more to add spice. Given that this was only one of many insertions of sex into the play, he clearly felt the need to make it racier.

E: This actually brings me back to the uneven comedic tone of the piece; the sexy bits brought in a lot of strange and puzzling power dynamics (especially with the servants and henchmen; I can’t even keep straight how many people Margaret and Ursula get felt up by) that complicated the narrative in a less than helpful way.

C: Yeah. Changing Conrad from the villainous Don John’s henchman into his girlfriend wasn’t a bad idea, but having Don John explain his evil plans while the two go to town on each other did not work for me at all. What is Don John’s deal? What does he seek to gain? This wasn’t “sexposition” so much as an annoying distraction from an already difficult part of the play to follow. Put down the Game of Thrones DVDs and step away, Joss.

E: Indeed.  It’s annoying enough on Game of Thrones.  What’s funny to me is that the Branagh version is incredibly sexy, ridiculously joyful and abandoned and hedonistic; for all the overt sex, Whedon’s created something more buttoned up, much more conflicted about sex — which I suppose makes sense from the guy who paired up Buffy and Angel. It ought to be zesty and exuberant!

C: The joyful stripping scenes that kick off Branagh’s version certain are that.

E: Damn straight.

C: His characters seem high on life, not drunk on booze because they’re vaguely sad, which is how Whedon’s version feels at times. But I can’t give all the props to Branagh. There are gleeful moments in Whedon’s film that I absolutely loved, moments where I was howling with laughter. And the actor playing Don John here was a distinct improvement over Keanu Reeves…

E: Ah, the other Achilles heel of the Branagh production.  Yes, Sean Maher was a vast improvement over Keanu Reeves, and I could see him relishing the opportunity to play so far against Whedonites perception of him, as he’s best known as Firefly‘s principled doctor.

C: Oh my gosh, I didn’t even recognize him!

E: While we’re at it, I quite liked soon-to-be S.H.I.E.L.D.-wielding Clark Gregg as Leonato, reimagined as a refined businessman coming undone.   Reed Diamond proved to be no Denzel Washington, but who else could be?  Former child actor Spencer Treat Clark (largely known to me through — yes — The Good Wife) brought more depth than usual to the role of Don John’s other henchman, Borachio.

C: Hm. They obviously tried to complicate his character with an implication that he carries a torch for Hero, but it’s hard to make the character anything but a skeevy minion through his actions. Speaking of child actors, it was awkward seeing Margaret being constantly felt up (as you pointed out before) when I recognized the actress as Mel Gibson’s kid in What Women Want.

E: I’ve probably left readers with the feeling that I didn’t like this version, based on my comments about Denisof and the necessity of him bringing something to the party that he didn’t.  I’m just extra picky when I really care about something, so you’re hearing all that now.  For all that, however, the gorgeous black and white visuals and the excellent music and sophisticated setting definitely pleased.

C: Yes, the party scene in particular was spectacular, with acrobats and twinkling lights, cocktails and jazz. Perfect for 2013, the year that brought back Gatsby.

E: And then there were the words.  You just can’t ruin those words.

C: You can’t. However they’re spoken, they resonate.

23 comments on “Sigh No More: Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing is Here

  1. M says:

    I have a complaint to raise. You both (rightfully) complain about the objectification of women in society and the unrealistic physical features that are impressed on women, and worse young girls, by our popular culture, and by us as members of it. That is very good of you, and especially as a father of two girls, I join you in the crusade to better the image (and self-image) of women in our society.

    However, now E turns around and calls Nathan Fillion “slightly portly”? And C lets it go with no comment? Disgusting double standard.

    • C says:

      I agree with you that there should be an equal standard, but is “slightly portly” objectifying? “Objectification” doesn’t just mean making an observation about someone’s physical appearance, it means locating their value in the physical. There’s a vast difference between disparaging women who are anything but stick-thin, and noting the fact that a man has gone from average to heavy in build.

      • M says:

        In case you missed it, I said “objectification… and the unrealistic physical features that are impressed on women”. I believe they are tied together, but it is the latter that specifically applies to the comments about Fillion. If I had made similar comments about a female celebrity that was now, lets say, “more voluptuous” than she was as a very young adult, but was still what *should* be considered a normal weight and build, and called her “slightly portly” I think you (or at least E) would have flown off the handle. Heck, you guys flew off the handle when I referred to Kristen Stewart as “homely”, I can only imagine what it would have been had I assailed the weight of someone like Kelley Clarkson.

        • C says:

          Believe it or not, I am seriously considering what you’re saying here. I’m just not sure yet what I think. Is calling someone “portly” on par with calling someone “homely”? “Homely” seems meaner to me, but maybe that’s equivocation. On the other hand, maybe it feels that way specifically because “portly” is being applied in this case to a man E and I are both praising to the skies, as opposed to a young woman whose acting we all dislike. And stoutness is not something which has generally hampered men from being successful, powerful, or even admired by the opposite sex — while it has often been an obstacle on all three fronts for women. (Though there have been a few positive developments on the latter front lately, or at least notable exceptions.)

          I guess the question is whether it’s acceptable to comment on someone’s size at all. I don’t think “realistic expectations” is really the question; the expectation for women in Hollywood is stick-thin, while the expectation for men in Hollywood is simply “not fat.” The question is, when an actor like Fillion — or, for instance, Alec Baldwin — has notably slimmer and bulkier stages in his career, is it inappropriate or demeaning to comment on such? Since E’s remark was that she finds him cute and adorable despite the change, it seems to me that you’re arguing one should not remark on the change at all, or at least one should not acknowledge that by general standards (though not one’s own) it might be considered a detraction to his attractiveness. Is that a correct reading of your objection?

          • M says:

            It is a very thoughtful, but inaccurate, reading of my objection. First of all, to the comparison of “homely” and “portly”. I have always understood “homely” to mean the same thing as plain, being average: not attractive but not ugly. I can tell from our previous discussion about Stewart that that is not the definition that you and E consider for it, but that was my understanding, and why I made the comparison.

            On the other hand, I have always seen “portly” used as a politically correct term for fat, just saying it in a way that is attempting to not insult directly, but insult none-the-less. President Taft, who weighed over 300 lbs and was not tall, was often called portly. Golfer Craig Stadler (nicknamed “The Walrus”, if that gives anyone who does not know Stadler an impression of his size) was called the same. Portly does not, at least in any use I’ve heard of it in 40 years, equate to “on the bulkier side of normal”.

            So that said, I took the “slightly portly” comment about Fillion to be a dig at him, calling him fat but in a nice way. Like saying “Oh, he’s cute-fat.” And I took offense to him being called fat, as he is by no means.

            And lastly, I do not consider Hollywood expectations to be “realistic expectations”, which is why I included the word “realistic” to begin with. I was trying to differentiate specifically between what *should* be expected of women as opposed to what the Hollywood culture, and folks like pre-Tootsie-eye-opening Dustin Hoffman, consider “normal”.

            So, in conclusion, Nathan Fillion’s not fat, so shut up. 😉

            • E says:

              Sigh. Okay, I’m just seeing this thread now and thought I should respond. And the thing is, you haven’t seen the movie, so you don’t know what Fillion looks like in it. I actually wondered if they had deliberately dressed him in badly tailored suits to make him look heavier (C didn’t agree), because he looks much larger than in the last season of Castle, where it is still obvious that he’s getting older and his body type is changing. In fact one of the reasons I remarked on it is because he looks markedly different here than he does on Castle, which is peculiar since this was filmed between the last two seasons of the show. I didn’t explain that in the review, and if I had you probably wouldn’t have been inspired to comment in this way.

              Like C, I’m going to try and have a serious discussion with you about this. Fillion’s worth to me is not based on his looks – but on the other hand, I definitely find him attractive, and have since I watched him on our grandmother’s “story” One Life To Live back when we were in high school. The remark came out of that context; he’s someone I have literally watched for more than 20 years, and constantly now because of Castle, so I have a long baseline of observing what he looks like. I do not like him less an actor because he’s gained weight, but I do note it.

              It’s a two fold question to me; first, do we have a right to expect actors to stay as fit and trim and young looking as part of their jobs? Being attractive certainly is a part of most actors job’s. While I don’t like the plastic surgery issues that this leads to, that’s at least a view point I can understand. Where that fits for Fillion I don’t know, because despite C’s opinion I feel pretty sure that he was dressed to look quite a bit heavier; it seems more likely than him gaining weight that quickly.

              The other side of the issue is that the demands placed on actresses go to an entirely different level than those placed on actresses – it’s the difference in what Hollywood considers attractive for each gender. Actors are allowed to have different body types; most of the women in this movie, and most actresses in general, are painfully thin, markedly different from normal healthy body types. I won’t say that Amy Acker isn’t healthy, because she might be, and she might have awesome metabolism that causes her to burn fat like whoa. But she looks like a waif, and there has to be a difference between promoting health and asking women to look like orphans in a Dickens play, and asking us to believe that’s the only way for a woman to be sexy. I’d say we’re probably agreed on that.

            • C says:

              This isn’t to “prove” anything, because dictionary definitions don’t necessarily capture changes in meaning, nuance, or context, but just for interest — the Oxford English Dictionary gives two definitions of PORTLY:
              1. Characterized by stateliness or dignity of bearing, appearance, or manner; handsome, majestic, imposing. (Now rare or U.S. regional.)
              2. Bulky; stout, plump, corpulent.

              Even in the second definition, the notable range between “plump” and “corpulent” shows it’s not a word with precise implications.

              • M says:

                I agree that the dictionary definitions are broad, and can be used to make either case. For example, part of the entry for “homely” is “In the United States, homely  usually suggests absence of natural beauty: an unattractive person almost homely enough to be called ugly” (hence, not ugly), and has synonyms of “plain” and “simple”. So I find this discussion in great contrast to the one where you both jumped down my throat for calling an actress (that neither of you particularly care for, mind you) homely, in the context of discussing her taking on a role where she is supposed to become the most beautiful woman in the world (Snow White). Now you are taking offense at me pointing out that your insulting of Nathan Fillion by calling him portly doesn’t jibe with your previous position.

                As for E’s comment, are you actually claiming that the fact that Hollywood has a double standard between men and women is what makes it ok for you to speak about men’s alleged portliness? Because that’s how that read, and I can’t imagine that that’s what you meant.

                • C says:

                  Of course E doesn’t mean that Hollywood’s double standard makes it okay to be unkind about male bodies. I think what she means is that, if you take it from a common American perspective, Hollywood-standard women look underweight (in terms of health and fitness), while Hollywood-standard men look a healthy weight. So if a man gains a noticeable amount in Hollywood, he may start looking overweight, where an actress like Amy Acker could easily put on twenty pounds without looking big by normal person standards.

                  Now, whether or not you can actually judge someone’s health by looking at their weight is another, much-debated issue we don’t really need to go into here!

    • thepresidentrix says:

      It’s a weird thing to say about a lengthy disagreement, but I’m not sure I actually disagree with anyone in this disagreement.

      I think it *should* be non-insulting to describe someone’s physical size, because it would be better if size weren’t as culturally loaded as it is. But when an apparently fair-minded person does comment on a person’s size, the sense that it must be an insult – that size alone (or a euphemism for size alone, as with many common uses of ‘portly,’ ‘curvy,’ etc.) comes loaded with additional associations that start with judgments of unattractiveness as a bare minimum and may well include other even more insulting assumptions about the large person’s value or lifestyle – is still pretty thoroughly conditioned. I think that as (hopefully) the size/value association is increasingly questioned and criticized, we’re going to enter into a period where it’s hard for us to recognize whether we ought to be offended or not, LOL. Because one person may be using size-terms thoughtfully and factually, without attendant judgment, and the next person over may be using the same language and either intending to insult or intending to be helpful and fair, while failing, because of uncritical acceptance of a lot of comfortable assumptions that nonetheless don’t stand up to scrutiny. (The ‘why shouldn’t I get to disparage you? I know best! It’s for your own good!’ person).

      Then there’s the related but separate question of how much we should allow, say, Nathan Fillion’s appearance to matter, and whether it’s acceptable to discuss what he looks like. Is it our business? I think this is becoming another area of huge cultural dissonance. Because if what’s common is indicative of what’s culturally acceptable, then it’s clearly culturally acceptable to comment on performers’ appearances. But the more discomfited we become with the huge emphasis placed on (particularly, not exclusively) womens’ appearances, the more it can seem like things might be better if we stopped treating physical appearance as a matter for public comment, altogether. By talking about it so much, we’re reinforcing the accepted view that it’s important and relevant what someone’s body looks like, and the more relevant appearance seems to be in the public discourse, the more we’re justifiably afraid that it’s further entrenching associations between (particularly, not exclusively) women, their value as human beings, and their physical attractiveness.

      So, on the one hand, someone hearing feminist objections to female bodies being treated as objects of public comment, might be bothered by open comment on a male body, because it seems hypocritical. But on the other hand, actual individual feminists may be baffled by the idea that ceasing to treat female bodies as objects of public comment/consumption means that we should avoid ever noticing or saying things about the way an actor (or anybody else) looks. For my part, I think bodies should be treated a lot *less* like public property – I think there needs to be a cultural attitude adjustment – but I also know I’m not really sure what *exactly* I think the new attitude ought to look like. Probably not like ‘nobody should ever get to say anything about the state of another person’s body,’ but I don’t have a rubric to explain when I think it’s normal and okay and non-hurtful and when I think it’s objectifying and better-avoided. Intent to hurt or not to hurt would be part of such a rubric, but not sufficient, to my mind. And certainly I wouldn’t be content with just: ‘It’s okay if we’re commenting on a man but not if we’re commenting on a woman.’

      • thepresidentrix says:

        Oh, and as regards “plain,” I think that’s another interesting case of a word that shouldn’t have to be insulting – as regards its literal meaning – but which will nearly always be heard that way, anyway. Because I don’t think people hear it as meaning ‘perfectly all right in appearance, but average and in no way exceptionally pretty.’ And I think the reason we don’t hear it that way is because of the ubiquitous (ubiquitous!!!) message that, especially if you are a girl or a woman, someone *has* to find you pretty or you won’t be liked, much less loved. I mean, look at HIMYM. Barney’s a shallow dog of a man, we all know that, and we know better than to take his values as a model. But Marshall and Ted, who are supposed to be average nice guys (maybe even especially sensitive, more than usually kind and idealistic nice guys) are also highly likely to make jokes that imply a ‘homely’ or ‘plain’ or, well, large woman is outside the bounds of desirability, maybe even affection, and that’s okay, because it’s just the way the world works. So, a lot of people are going to take the words ‘plain’ and ‘homely’ to mean ‘unworthy of love,’ ‘not worth my time,’ ‘unappealing.’

        As a passing part of a conversation with a female friend of mine a couple of years ago, I pointed out that I’m simply not conventionally attractive. On the rating scale from 1 to 10, I don’t even care what makes you a 9 or a 10, I don’t need to know, because a) I think it’s dumb – from where I sit, the attractiveness of the top ten males to grab my attention seems pretty incommensurable and not something I’d be able to score numerically by any means, and b) whatever conventionally attractive is, I’m smart enough to have caught on that it isn’t me. Anyway, my very mature grown-up female friend freaked out. She was not going to let me get away with describing myself as non-pretty. It just wouldn’t stand! I tried very calmly and cheerfully to explain to her that I didn’t mean no one would ever like the look of me anyway, or that I have some kind of off-putting rejection sign for a face. I just meant I’m what you say: plain, average, maybe homely. Somebody has got to be average. I mean, there are a lot of us, and we can’t all be the most beautiful.

        To be honest, if some kind of expert scorer of women’s appearances gave me an official score stating that I’m in the middle of the pack, I’d be thrilled, because I know a lot of women, some of whom are probably also average, and I like the look of them very much! I’m surrounded by terrific-looking, average women all the time. Why wouldn’t I want to be like them?

        But, as I think my friend’s concern indicates, I think we’ve gotten to a point where appearance matters so weirdly much that we believe both that a) if you’re not pretty you won’t be loved, and b) it’s unloving – toward yourself or toward anyone else to whom you deny the label – to say ‘not pretty.’ And as long as we believe those two things, ‘plain’ is going to be very hurtful, because although it should be okay for there to be an ‘average’ but still altogether lovable appearance, that’s in no way the ambient sentiment.

        In conclusion, idle, semi-relevant remarks:

        1) Don’t ask me how this happened, but the other day I heard a track from a Disney Princess tea party cd which was intended to be played to a ‘birthday princess,’ presumably at her birthday princess tea party. The song included a line about the birthday girl being ‘the prettiest princess of aaaaall,’ which I (personally) thought was extremely misguided and weird. Now, I am not going to tell any parent ever that his or her daughter is *not* the prettiest girl in the world, because for all I know (not having any children of my own), most parents just see their kids that way in their honest heart of hearts, and it’s a good reminder, actually, that human beauty has a lot to do with seeing from the heart – not with 1 to 10 standards of supposedly objective evaluation. But if we have gotten past the point where grownups are just supposed to tell sensitive little girls, ‘of course you are pretty,’ to the point where we’re supposed to say, ‘of course you’re the prettiest princess in the whole wide world!!!!’ I think that is bat-nuts. BAT-NUTS. Not because it’s probably untrue, but because it’s such a bad way to teach a little girl to think about herself – and, oh, about her siblings and about the half a dozen other little girls who are probably invited to the tea party and having to listen to this same birthday princess shlock…

        2) My parents actually didn’t tell me I was pretty. They told me I was not pretty, but it was okay, because they could provide me with examples of non-pretty grown-ups who turned out just fine. (True). I *did* find it hurtful that they said that, but that was because I was too small to see the ideas of unattractiveness, visual repulsion and homeliness as separable. Now, although I’m not going to make a federal case out of disagreeing with a guy if he ever says, ‘No, I genuinely do find you pretty,’ I think I’d be okay with, say, a husband who agrees I’m ‘plain’ but still likes looking at my face. I’m not sure exactly what it would feel like to hold both of those views at once, because whenever I like a guy, I see him as handsome, regardless of how unconventional looking he is. But in a world where dudes have a numbering system – which seems to be of some importance to them and their dating habits – maybe at least some dudes don’t approach the issue from the same angle as I do. Anyway, since I do believe that ‘plain’ people can be perfectly attractive, I wouldn’t mind a dude who thought I was just average (or even below average) as long as he could still do the whole, you know, seeing with the heart thing, that makes you come across as an appealing human person.

        • E says:

          2) In other words, “My mistress’s eyes are nothing like the sun” ? I kind of think that it’s likely to be more like it works for you – that the guy for you would find you not perfect, per se, but compelling for him. That he loves your eyes, or your smile, or the way your intelligence lights up your face – plain wouldn’t come into the picture. I can acknowledge Mr. E’s flaws but I still find him attractive, and vice versa. In fact, I think as women we tend to be hyper critical of our own looks. Most men that I know have a much stronger belief in their own attractiveness. Or – hmm, how to say this. I’m talking in generalities, but when a women tells a man she thinks he’s good looking, he believes it; the reverse is almost never true (even if she believes that he finds her attractive), which is fascinating and sad.

          1) In line with that escalation issue, I almost wrote a post last summer about the proliferation of feel good pop songs that made proclamations like “who says you’re not perfect?” as an explicit leap from “who says you’re not worthy.” As if in order to be worthy – in order to have self-esteem at all – you need to see yourself as perfect, as the prettiest princess of them all. That drove me nuts, and there were maybe three different songs out then that used that kind of language. Don’t ever feel like you’re less than perfect? I mean, come on. I’m all for promoting self-esteem and countering the actions of bullies, but it shouldn’t make you blind to your faults, unable to change or question yourself or grow. Complacency isn’t the answer either. And telling me I’m perfect as I am isn’t going to give me self-esteem because you know what? I’m self-aware enough to know I’m not perfect.

          Sigh. Back to M’s objection, while C and I agreed with him that setting Kristen Stewart up as more beautiful than Charlize Theron was preposterous, we both viewed his use of the word homely to mean unattractive, sort of actively unattractive verses plain, which is strikes me as a neutral term. It just seems to go to far in a direction we were generally willing to travel. Is what I wrote the same thing? I don’t know. I hope not. Often I hear men (though not M) make cracks like “Uma Thurman is such a dog” or “Claudia Schiffer is ugly” when they just mean she’s not their type or she’s not the prettiest model/actress, and I find the hyperbole not only mean but annoying.

          And, as a parent? I suspect most parents do secretly – or not so secretly – think their kids are the worlds cutest. Also, I get your friend’s reaction; you’re right, we really are conditioned to not allow anything remotely insulting to leave a friend’s lips. You writing that made me want to hug you and tell you it’s not true. But if you were to ask me about my own looks, I’d likely say the same sort of thing, that my looks are not where I’d place my own value. Actually, more likely I’d break it down by features, that I think I have nice eyes and good hair, etc, that I’ve come to terms with my face.

      • E says:

        Thanks for adding in!

        You know, it’s funny – and yet also typical – that M has latched onto this comment of mine, because I’m generally very squeamish about physical descriptions. When I talk about contestants on So You Think You Can Dance, for example, I go through gymnastics debating whether to include their race or not. Is it relevant as a description? Is it irrelevant? Mostly I just leave it out. As in acting, a dancer’s body is their instrument, and so it’s hard to say that their looks are irrelevant

        I don’t think I did a very good job phrasing my original own comment. As I said above, I can’t help wondering if Fillion’s wardrobe was purposefully created to make him look heavier in order to achieve some (slightly baffling) end. His shirts are loose and puffy, he’s got a holster under his arm pits, his tie is short, his suit jacket seems to stand off him; it doesn’t seem like the costumers were trying to flatter him. In other words, I think they could have been trying to make him less distracting, less of a threat to Denisof.

        I cling to this because if the filmmakers were intentionally dressing him to look heavier, then it would be relevant. If I’m making that up and I’m just observing that he’s gained weight, then commenting on it was mean of me, and definitely not in line with my annoyance at the way Hollywood treats women’s bodies, or my desire to be generally kind, or even accurate to Fillion’s looks in general. (Also there’s that thing about glass houses and stones.) Because while it does matter in Hollywood how actors look – while it is part of their job – those actors are also far more than simply an image on the screen, and their bodies are their own property, not mine.

        • C says:

          Just to quickly touch on the costuming of the movie point, I don’t think you can read too much intention in; I remember reading somewhere that Whedon & co. just picked and chose out of the wardrobes of those present.

  2. thepresidentrix says:

    I’m really glad you two did this review, and I hope to get to see this movie – somewhere or by means of some device – before very long. I think I get jealous of my beloveds, and one of the reasons I’m glad I don’t have to direct Shakespeare is that when I fall in love with some particular interpretation, I tend to want just to reinstantiate it over and over again. Much Ado About Nothing is definitely one of my beloveds – maybe the rare Shakespearian comedy that I actually find *funny*, not just interesting or heart-warming or otherwise literarily worthwhile – and I’m so attached to that Kenneth Branagh version, for all its imperfections, that I felt a little anxious about whether or not I even wanted a new version, y’know?

    The two of you have managed to convince me that Whedon’s version has some very welcome merits that the previous versions never did. (Particularly with Dogberry; I was initially sad to hear that Fillion plays that part, because I thought of it as such an awful, annoying role. It’s genuinely intriguing to learn that it doesn’t have to be so).

    It is a bit of a disappointment about Denisof, though. There are definitely things I like about the man, but his strengths had never previously struck me as the right kind for a Benedick. I wanted to be proved wrong about that, but it doesn’t sound like it turned out quite that way, regardless of whether it was a matter of direction or actor’s conviction.

    Isn’t it funny how the girl C describes as Mel Gibson’s daughter from What Women Want crops up in *so many* unexpected places but never seems to attain the spotlight? My first memory of her was that she played the youngest daughter of Growing Pains. (One of those weird babe-in-arms to kindergartener transitions). Probably the most recent place I can remember seeing her was in The Avengers, where she’s the suggested-possible-maybe-future love interest (or at least coffee date) for Captain America. But she pops up all over the place, and I’ve always instinctively liked her. And although I guess I never thought about it before, I truly do not want her to be unwelcomely groped.

    • M says:

      I think that the obvious question now is who DO you want to be unwelcomely groped? 😉

      Seriously, though, she does pop up in everything, doesn’t she? And I can’t stand when shows like Growing Pains just fast-forward a baby a few years, and expect the audience to either not notice, not care, or think it was a great idea. It’s just lazy.

    • C says:

      I’m glad you made that comment about Avengers. I thought I recognized her but wasn’t sure. It seemed like such a random part to even get a recognizable (even if not famous) actress for, rather than an extra. But the Whedon connection seemed to support that it was definitely her.

      I don’t at all blame you about getting “jealous” – the Branagh version is my delight, and I’ll admit I even felt a touch of irrational hurt on its behalf in reaction to the level of excitement my Whedonite friends were expressing about this one! But it’s worth seeing for all that, if only because it does manage to succeed in a few places where Branagh slipped (as you say, it’s a revelation just to realize one’s skin doesn’t *have* to crawl when Dogberry’s on screen).

      • E says:

        Being excited about this never meant any less love for the Branagh version on my part! I totally know what you mean about having “beloved” versions, but I think Shakespeare in particular is something I think of as always being adapted and always being plumbed for crazy new settings and styles. I think it’s entirely possible that you could do a black and white modern Hollywood glamor setting of Much Ado and have it be different but as good as Branagh’s; it didn’t happen, but it could have. I’m not really sure I can imagine anyone actually doing better on the whole, though, and honestly the problems here just point to what an amazing achievement Branagh’s production was.

  3. flick says:

    Margeret (Ashley Johnson) was also on Dollhouse, that true Whedon connection seems to have been missed. The episode was Omega, she played Wendy.

  4. […] This is me pointedly ignoring your attempt to reopen an old debate, […]

  5. helen ford says:

    Can’t believe you guys did not mention the film of Joe Papp’s 1973 version with Sam Waterson & a great turn on the problematic role of Dogberry by Barnard Hughes.

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