The story begins as Don Pedro (Denzel Washington) comes to reside at Leonato's (Richard Briers) for a while with his men. Amongst them is Claudio (Robert Sean Leonard), who immediately falls in love with Leonato's daughter, Hero (Kate Beckinsale) and must marry her. But while waiting for the wedding, the household plans to play cupid and hook up Benedick (Kenneth Branagh) and Leonato's neice, Beatrice (Emma Thompson), both of whom are shrewish bachelors-for-life. Unfortunately, Don Pedro's bastard brother, Don John (Keanu Reeves), plans to seek revenge on Don Pedro and mess up their plans, and it might work... if inept nightwatchman Dogberry (Michael Keaton) doesn't get in the way. The film also co-stars Imelda Staunton as Margaret, who I believe is a handmaiden to Hero (or something along those lines).
I'm sure when you think of Shakespeare, Denzel Washington, Michael Keaton, and Keanu Reeves aren't the first people to come to mind. I mean, seriously, somebody had to have this conversation: "We need a villain for this Shakespeare movie... and he must be brothers with Denzel Washington. I've got it! Keanu Reeves!" Seriously though, despite the unusual casting, it all rather works. Keanu is broody, and he doesn't talk a whole lot, which is probably why he gets away with it. Denzel is absolutely fantastic in the role and should probably do more Shakespeare, to be honest. Of course, Branagh and Thompson feel like they were transported from Elizabethan England and perform effortlessly. But it was Michael Keaton who I felt stole every scene he was in. He was quite hilarious and had me laughing quite a bit.
In fact, the movie itself had me laughing out loud at numerous points. It took me a while to get into the language--Elizabethan is tricky enough to get used to, but Shakespearean dialogue is so fast and so full of wit and puns that if you stop paying attention for a second, you'll miss out on the meaning of the conversation. Sure, you can get the gist of it, but you'll lose out on the wordplay (and I like my wordplay). But once I was focused, I was entranced. The film moved so quickly, it didn't feel like an hour and 50 minutes. And a large portion of that had to do with the film's charm and humor and overall language.
That upside is also the downside. At times things did move so fast I had a hard time keeping up or knowing what was going on. In fact, I had no idea what was going on in Keaton's first two scenes that I had to look it up. I actually thought he was a bad guy or thief or something like that, only to discover quite the opposite. And unless I missed something, I'm still not sure Don John's motivation outside of just feeling like he gets the short end of the stick in relation to his brother. And if that's the case, it's a weak motivation (not really a fault of the movie, I suppose, though). I mean, on the whole I followed the film fine, but there were scenes here and there that totally lost me and I had to get a quick summary to figure out what was happening.
It's just a happy movie. Even when it's being serious and dastardly plots are afoot, you know nothing bad is really going to happen. It's a great romantic comedy from Shakespeare (even if it follows the Shakespearean tropes of falling madly in love at first sight). The performances are great all around. A good film all around, and I do recommend it to those who like the genre (Shakespearean language or not).
A Keanu 'Whoa'
(P.S. That rating is just coincidental.)