Love's labors not lost here


"Much Ado About Nothing"

Starring Kenneth Branagh, Emma Thompson and Denzel Washington

Directed by Kenneth Branagh

bTC Released by Samuel Goldwyn

Rated PG.

*** 1/2

5/8 Sun, sex and jokes? What could appeal more pruriently to the baser instincts of moviegoers than that recipe? And that's exactly what Kenneth Branagh serves up in great plummy gobs in his rollicking version of Shakespeare's proto-Hepburn/Tracy farce, "Much Ado About Nothing."

The plot could have been hatched by a couple of hacks sitting in a Beverly Hills delicatessen over lox and bagels one morning 10 minutes before a pitch meeting with network brass. It's that shaky and even the experts concede that the bard had better days story-wise.

Fundamentally, the piece is built around the contrast between two couples and their notions of love. In the foreground are Benedick and Beatrice (Branagh and wife Emma Thompson) and in the background Claudio and Hero (Robert Sean Leonard and Kate Beckinsale). The former are cynics, the latter romantics, and Shakespeare got great comic mileage out of contrasting the spatting, pawing, punning older people against the simpy romantic ditherings of the younger. Each, we soon learn, is a valid articulation of passion, but Shakespeare was wise enough by the time he wrote it to understand that declaiming "You sweat less than any fat girl I know" was a way of saying "I love you" significantly more interesting than saying "I love you."

Only the thinnest tissue of cliche holds the flimsy narrative structure together. By Mack Sennett standards, it's hopelessly cornball -- the primary mechanism is the overheard, misunderstood conversation which is then misinterpreted and used to shoot the story off even deeper into the realms of muddle. Branagh finesses the essential thinness of the device by emphasizing spatial possibilities that seem somewhat more naturalistic in the three-dimensional realm of the film than they ever do in the two-dimensional realm of the stage (though it can work there if propelled by bravura performance).

Of course Benedick and Beatrice are the most interesting, because the level of their verbal combat is so much higher and the two performers bring such brio to it. Branagh seems especially sparkling, his Benedick truly reveling in the duel of wits before he even realizes he's in love with his opponent. Thompson is a joy and, something better, a suntanned joy. She's the color of Navajo pottery, so baked she looks positively mythological.

The Americans try hard to stay with the two beaming Brits, but it's an uphill struggle the whole way. The Claudio-Hero tale has the additional drawback of carrying a heavier load of subplot necessary to bang the piece out to proper length, a devious tale of intrigue in which Don John, the bastard brother of the Prince of Arragon, uses the youngsters to plot against Don Pedro. It seems a precursor of Iago's plot against Othello, a kind of roughed-out first draft version, but it remains obscure dramatically and the poor Americans -- Keanu Reeves as Don John and Denzel Washington as Don Pedro, the prince -- aren't really up to sorting it out. They also suffer by contrast to the stage-trained Branagh and Thompson, from whose lips Shakespeare's language seems to explode spontaneously; in American mouths, one senses hesitation, fear and lack of fluency.

Leonard has better luck in a less complicated and more earnest role, but the best American is Michael Keaton, who gets the juicy low-comedy role of Dogberry, constable of the watch and one of the biggest morons in Shakespeare. Keaton has great galloping fun with this over-the-top, drunken Irish cop, who through good-heartedness and luck manages to undo Don John's plot and save the love of Claudio and Hero.

In all, Benedick and Beatrice, and not the play, are the thing that gives "Much Ado About Nothing" its wonderful sting.

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