I might be one of the least qualified people on the planet to review a movie like Much Ado About Nothing. I’d be at pains to muster a single unique thought on any work from William Shakespeare (I’d read/seen several of his plays, but not this one), and I know even less about Joss Whedon, the director of this modernized adaptation (I’ve seen one of his movies and some of his shows, but not enough). I cannot assert whether pairing “the greatest writer in the history of civilization” with the guy who wrote Romeo and Juliet is, truly, a match made in heaven.
I can tell you that the resulting movie, reportedly filmed at Whedon’s home as something of a twelve-day larf, feels just like that: a breezy, snappy, genuinely fun larf. With his spontaneous and warm black-and-white photography, capturing solid performances from his troupe of best acting buds, Whedon capitalizes on Shakespeare’s love of language to make an adaptation that feels at once intimate, goofy, and even a little sexy. This Much Ado About Nothing makes me wish that I’d read a bit more Shakespeare in high school and that I’d watched a lot more Buffy.
As I understand, Whedon’s script follows Shakespeare’s original text fairly closely, which follows dovetailing stories of love and misunderstanding in the house of the Governor Leonato, played here by Clark Gregg. We have Fran Kranz as Claudio, falling in love with Jillian Morgese’s Hero, the daughter of Leonato. Aside from that more conventional (well, until the 4th Act) tale of courtship, we also see Amy Acker playing the role of Beatrice, contending with Alexis Denisof’s Benedick, with whom she wages “a kind of merry war.” Little love is lost between Beatrice and Benedick, but through the machinations of several other visitors in Leonato’s residence, they slowly discover a mutual affection.
I am sure the last thing you want is for me to give my feeble interpretation of a play that has not only been interpreted and re-interpreted over the past four centuries by people much smarter than myself (Whedon included), but by people who weren’t just exposed to it the day before having to write about it. So forgive me if I do not delve much more deeply into the words Shakespeare penned.
But to address how well Whedon transposes the 17th century prose against the mise-en-scène of his literal backyard, I dare say he does a magnificent job. Choosing his own home as the stage for his version of Much Ado is an inspired one; his deeply intimate understanding of the space his actors inhabit makes for a genuinely comforting and even welcoming atmosphere, dashing any concern that Shakespeare’s words would feel anachronistic when spoken in a private swimming pool or a child’s bedroom. We oftentimes talk about how a director can welcome us into a movie’s world. In using his own residence – in becoming a Leonato in his own right – Whedon makes the viewer feel thoroughly comfortable.
I also appreciate how sensuous Whedon’s visuals feel. Much Ado does not feel terribly polished (how many movies shot under two weeks do?), but he plays with different camera angles with an almost recreational glee. Some exchanges take place while characters are engaging in foreplay, or whispering to each other in lustful, flirtatious tones. This adds a noticeably sexualized charge to the words we are hearing, which truly is quite helpful when many of the plot twists in Shakespeare’s play can at times strain modern-day credulity.
Admittedly, Whedon does get carried away with his visual playfulness at times, especially when it comes to the physical comedy required of actors like Denisof. A telling example is when Benedick must eavesdrop on a rather critical (and intentionally deceptive) conversation, the comedy being that he does not realize how colossally bad he is at keeping himself hidden. Whedon asks Denisof to run back and forth, to leap behind the nearest shrub imaginable for hiding, employing the broadest pantomimes possible. I never laughed quite as hard as I believe I was supposed to; I cannot tell if Whedon just could not get the tone of the comedy to balance, or if all that flailing simply kill the comedy. Fortunately, such missteps in this movie are quite rare.
As much fun as Whedon seems to be having as a stylistically liberated filmmaker, the actors are having an even greater blast, hanging on each “hither” and “thither” as if it were a rung on a playschool jungle-gym. Having only been exposed to Kranz’s Cabin in the Woods stoner, the emotional range he shows as Claudio revealed just how dangerously close my mind came to unfairly typecasting him. Clark Gregg is quickly becoming one of my favorite character actors; he plays “glue holding the whole thing together” roles with incredible deftness and generosity. Everyone is buzzing about Nathan Fillion’s admittedly fine role as the malapropism-prone constable Dogberry, who shows up much later, but the biggest revelation for me was Acker. As Beatrice, Acker conveys a haughtiness and humanity that felt not merely relatable, but genuinely engaging and thoroughly likeable. She is a beautiful, assured, and strong-willed actress who plays her character both sensitively and with a delightfully soapy quality. How could Benedick ever not want to marry her?
Perhaps the greatest success of Much Ado About Nothing, apart from being a bright spot in the much of blockbuster season and apart from how excited it makes me to revisit Shakespeare, is how greatly it excites me for Joss Whedon’s next (non-Avengers) movie. With Steven Soderbergh supposedly retiring, here’s hoping this TV nerd-God is benevolent enough to carry on that “one for you, one for me” tradition of moviemaking. The more movies he makes entirely for his own sake, the more his burgeoning film career is bound to excite me.
Bottom Line: It turns out Joss Whedon is as much fun doing Shakespeare as when he’s doing vampires and comic books.