Picks and Pans Review: Much Ado About Nothing

updated 05/17/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/17/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Kenneth Branagh, Emma Thompson, Denzel Washington, Michael Keaton, Keanu Reeves, Robert Sean Leonard

Director-actor Branagh returns to the honey-tongued playwright who served him so thrillingly four years ago in Henry V. Maybe it's time to move on to Ibsen.

Actually, the prospect of Branagh and wife Thompson playing Benedick and Beatrice, Shakespeare's sharp-spoken lovers, is an exciting one. And Thompson (see story, page 51), who is turning out to be a near-flawless comic actress, is all you could hope for: bright, sardonic but with the sweetest hint of melancholy. Branagh gets some good, broad comedy out of high-strung Benedick, but there's something inelegant about his acting. His Benedick is not that far removed from the writer gone Hollywood he played in his last project, Peter's Friends, an adorable whiner. Some sparks fly between him and Thompson, but not enough, and what should be the movie's high point—their decision to requite each other's love—is spoiled by a goofy montage of Branagh splashing wildly in a fountain while Thompson kicks up her heels on a swing. Ne'er hath romance seemed so like unto a Doublemint ad.

When your Beatrice and Benedick fail to carry the day—well, you're left with a cruel melodrama involving dastardly bastards, slanderous allegations against fair maidens, and so on, before everyone hightails it off to the altar with a heigh nonny-nonny. But other than Washington, who has a certain panache as Don Pedro, Branagh's players aren't up to this folderol. It's hard to imagine why anyone would ask Reeves to do Shakespeare; perhaps Branagh thought there was camp value in the self-conscious way he slinks about as villainous Don John. And Keaton, teeth slathered with grime, seems to have confused Constable Dogberry with Beetlejuice.

Much Ado was filmed in bright Tuscan sunlight, which makes the movie monotonous to look at and robs the actors' faces of expressiveness. What someone should have stolen off with was some of the festive frolicking, hand-clapping, masquerading and Maypole dancing that make the production look like a resort run by the Von Trapp family. (PG-13)

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