Those not already familiar with the dirty pun embedded in the title ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ might be surprised to discover that Joss Whedon and friends’ home-movie version begins with sex. There certainly is sex, flirting, angst, marriage, and the mistaken or performed identities we take on in romantic relationships present in the text. But what makes this interpretation special is how Whedon uses all the cinematic tools he apparently just has over at his house and gives the story a compact, comprehensible clarity. The result is something with both the seeming-spontaneity of theater and the deliberately-framed perspective of film, a screwball comedy of manners to make both Billy Wilder and Billy Shakespeare proud.
The play itself is a tale of merry contrivances, until they aren’t. Returned from war against his spiteful brother John (in tow), Don Pedro of Aragon visits Leonato of Messina’s estate, where members of both households – the young earnests Claudio and Hero and the witty cynics Benedick and Beatrice – variously fall in love, are tricked into falling in love, are tricked into breaking up, and fall right back in love again. All’s well that ends well, of course, and for fans of the auteur’s work, wow, loosen your grip on that ticket voucher, Feigenbaum04, you’ll wrinkle it. For the rest of you, if elegant black and white cinematography, some fantastic physical comedy, and charming people conveying emotions as real and raw as ever they were 400 years ago sounds like a party, this Much Ado is definitely worth the cover.
As mentioned, the film begins with a brief prologue creating an explicit history between the leads not explicitly found in the play. This one night stand, the modern dress, and the black and white photography do the work of establishing a distinct film world, one in which it’s easier to accept the Elizabethean English because so many other things – not the least Whedon’s gracious, Mediterranean-style home – are different from our stilted, doublet-and-hose expectations of Shakespeare. The adaptation choices are solid overall, especially the integration of surveillance/technology. Leonato uses a Blackberry to receive the message of the opening lines; the suits and attendant entourage suggest Pedro’s ‘war’ was a political or corporate one; a photographer is (somewhat pedantically) framing the characters as they make choices. The jazzy, cocktail hour look is like an Altoid for viewer engagement: it creates this perky, pepperminty palette, refreshing and readying you for the actors to, ahem, take center stage.
The casual nature of a Whedon alumni reunion inevitably peeks through a bit; but the film’s focus is on its performers, and the cast nails the play in spirit, if not always with uniform precision in line and verse. Whedon’s gang mentality, a driving force in his work long before The Avengers assembled, ensures all of the players get enough screentime to understand them thoroughly and emotionally invest in their actions. This isn’t Beatrice-and-Benedick, some stuff going on in another scene, the Beatrice-and-Benedick show, some other boring stuff over here. Clark “His Name Is Agent” Gregg as Leonato and newcomer Jillian Morgese as Hero put together endearing father/daughter bonds that later pay off with interest; Fran Kranz, a memorable asset in Cabin in the Woods, takes his squirrely intensity and runs it head-first through several walls as the romantic Claudio. And really, what other enticement do you need than Nathan Fillion as the weathered cop Dogberry, utilizing all the swagger of Captain Hammer, adding Aviators, ineptitude, and a series of delicious responses to being called an ass?
Yet Much Ado is nothing without lightning-rod performances from Benedick and Beatrice, and fortunately Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof provide them. The film is in some ways a giant poster board project illustrating how unjust is Acker’s lack of Stardom. It’s hard to touch Emma Thompson’s turn as the consummate wit who fights the hardest against her own feelings, but Acker conveys such light comic timing and agonizing emotional depth it is right to mention her in the same breath. For his part, Denisof owns – nay, he pwns – the physical comedy, and his personal chemistry adds a level of zest to any scene he’s in. Fans of the pair from their Angel days will probably swoon, so just shove them into a brace position. They’ll be fine.
Really, there’s not much more to say, because the movie is smartly simple. The let’s-put-on-a-show vibe is almost entirely counteracted by Whedon’s judicious adaptation choices (the songs are well integrated which almost never happens!) and the sheer joy that the cast brings to the material. Even though it was guaranteed to end up on hardcore Browncoats’ shelves and substitute teachers’ syllabi, the film is pretty worthy of that adulation, offering audiences a jazzy, boozy, alive celebration of The Bard.
Much Ado creates an engaging setting specifically for the gifted actors of Joss Whedon’s stock company to play. If any one of the tumblrs you follow has to do with Shakespeare, cult TV shows, film student envy, or fun, you will probably enjoy it.
Drink With The Character Of Your Choice whenever they take a drink. Suggested levels of difficulty are as follows:
- Groundlings – Leonato, Hero, or Don John
- Company Players – Beatrice AND Benedick
- February-Faced Swine Drunkards – Claudio and/or Don Pedro
Take a Drink: every time someone says the word ‘bachelor’.
Take a Drink: every time the photographer is very overtly present in a scene written before photographers existed.
Take a Drink: every time sunglasses are put on or removed.
Finish Your Drink: if Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof remind you of Fred and Wes from Angel and AAAAH THEY ARE SO ADORABLE!