Much Ado About Nothing is William Shakespeare’s classic comedic play about the nature of falling in love and the resulting social politics that come with noble marriages. The story centers on two pairs of lovers: Count Claudio (Fran Kranz), who is lovestruck upon laying eyes upon virtuous Hero (Jillian Morgese), the daughter of nobleman Leonato (Clark Gregg); and on the other side of things, jilted ex-lovers Beatrice (Amy Acker) and Benedick (Alexis Denisof), sworn enemies of love who nonetheless trade witty insults like an old married couple.
When the royal Don Pedro (Reed Diamond) visits Leonato’s home, he sees an opportunity to play matchmaker twice over; however, the prince’s disgraced brother, Don John (Sean Maher), schemes in secret to murder love and happiness by casting the shadow of disgrace on chaste and innocent Hero, thereby sparking events that could transform love into tragedy.
Like Baz Luhrmann (Romeo + Juliet) and Michael Almereyda (Hamlet 2000) before him, Whedon makes the bold choice to juxtapose Shakespeare’s lyrical prose against modern day characters and events – which, in the case of the aforementioned pair of films, yielded distinctly mixed results. Thankfully for audiences, Whedon has a clear grasp of what makes this particular Shakespearean opus so indelible, and is subsequently able to represent the story in proper spirit, while still getting to put his signature “Whedonesque” spin on it.
While the words in the screenplay are the product of Shakespeare’s hand, the context of each scene is carefully crafted by Whedon. The modern-day interpretation proves to be inviting, as the director finds perfectly relatable (and often very humorous) visual cues and physical humor that will help even the most ‘Shakespeare-impaired’ viewer interpret the humor, wit and insight contained within The Bard’s Olde English prose.
It is admittedly jarring, at first, to hear such heightened language being exchanged so casually in a modern setting, but the ear adjusts soon enough and things roll smoothly from there on out. Of course, if the words “Iambic pentameter” are important to you (Shakespeare purists), then hearing Whedon’s cast recite the words according to their own speech rhythms and with their own mannerisms is not going to be a pleasant experience. Similarly, if you are the type who can’t stand when a modern Shakespeare movie insists on keeping that ‘funny old language,’ then you are clearly not the audience that Whedon and Co. are aiming for, and this movie is not going to satisfy. To even begin to engage with the film, one must be open to the experiment taking place and give the director and his cast a credible chance to put their stamp on the material; in the end, you’ll likely be glad you did.
On a directorial level, this stripped-down black and white film (which was shot over twelve days in Whedon’s Santa Monica home) is ironically enough one of the more visually captivating films that Whedon has made. Perhaps it was the familiarity with his own home and environment, but there are many clever shots (see: the header image to this review) and visual metaphors packed into the seemingly simple proceedings – not to mention, enough flattering landscape and/or architectural shots to make Whedon’s house look like an enviable party destination/resort. While Avengers may have created the perception of Joss Whedon as the Michael Bay of geek filmmaking, Much Ado About Nothing reminds that underneath all that fame and flash there is still a very unique and talented filmmaker, who knows how to infuse his work with what is clearly personal admiration and love for the material.
Aiding in that celebration of the work is a cast of familiar (yet still very talented) actors from the “Whedonverse,” whom longtime fans of the filmmaker will certainly recognize. Alexis Denisof (Angel) and Amy Acker (Dollhouse) are pitch-perfect as the primary characters, Beatrice and Benedick, showing great wit and understanding of the finer points of the material in their delivery; great chemistry in their interactions with one another; and, like true Elizabethan-era theater actors, a healthy dose of physical comedy and slapstick as well. Acker in particular is great about giving Shakespeare’s depiction of a free-thinking, independent and spirited woman a modern interpretation, keeping her depiction both timely and timeless in its appeal.
The rest of the cast is just as talented (with the exception of Morgese, who has the hint of a newcomer’s deer-in-the-headlights stiffness) – and more importantly, they seem to be having fun. The greatest appeal of this iteration of Much Ado About Nothing is the sense of camaraderie and comfort between the cast and crew. This movie has the intimacy and carefree nature of a group of friends getting together to make a movie – purely for the enjoyment of it – and that pleasure is infectious. The segments with Tom Lenk and Nathan Fillion (as bumbling lawmen Verges and Dogberry) is like watching Shakespearean Laurel & Hardy at its best. Clark Gregg is both hilarious and dramatic, and there is even a hint of sexuality in the mix, thanks to the villain squad of Riki Lindhome (as Conrade), Spencer Treat Clark (as Borachio), Sean Maher (as Don Jon) and their patsy Ashley Johnson (as Margaret).
All in all, Much Ado About Nothing is a faithful, pleasant and enjoyable small-scale production of Shakespeare’s classic. If you are in for the experiment, you’ll likely be charmed by the result.
Much Ado About Nothing is now playing in theaters. It is 107 min and is Rated PG-13 for sexuality and brief drug use.