Review: Much Ado About Nothing / Director: Joss Whedon / Screenplay: Joss Whedon, William Shakespeare / Starring: Amy Acker, Alexis Denisof, Nathan Fillion, Reed Diamond, Jillian Morgese, Tom Lenk, Sean Maher, Clark Gregg, Fran Cranz, Emma Bates, Ashley Johnson / Release Date: June 14th
Generally speaking, when a director is contractually forced to take a week off between wrapping on a big-budget movie and beginning the edit, they head to the beach for some much-needed R&R. They don’t gather up their mates to film a black-and-white Shakespeare adaptation in their own home. But Joss Whedon rarely does what you expect – which is something the viewing public should be very grateful for.
His Shakespeare adaptation of choice was Much Ado About Nothing, an odd romcom that lurches close to tragedy at one point. To sum it up as best as you can sum up a Shakespeare play, Much Ado is the tale of stubborn, argumentative would-be lovers Beatrice and Benedick, against a backdrop of plotting princes and thwarted young love. In many ways Much Ado is the ideal Shakespeare project for Whedon, given that Beatrice is something of a proto feminist, railing against a society that traps her in the feminine role. “O, God, that I were a man! I would eat his heart in the market place” she spits, in one of the play’s best lines. The play has its faults, and ones which a modern setting tend to exacerbate. Claudio and Hero’s semi-arranged marriage makes it hard to root for them in the period setting, but it’s impossible to root for them in the modern day.
Despite the inherent problems within the text, Whedon largely makes the modern setting work for him. Beatrice and Benedick’s romance is just as enjoyably spiky and relevant in the present day as it was in the 16th century, and the modern era allows Whedon to bring a bucket load of sexy to the table. Beatrice and Benedick’s tension now has its roots in a drunken one night stand, while Don John’s partner-in-crime Conrade has been gender-swapped, making the two plotters lovers rather than friends.
Among the cast are a host of faces that will be familiar to any long-term Whedon fans. Agent Coulson himself Clark Gregg and Dollhouse’s Reed Diamond here work with Whedon for only the second time, and both deliver excellent performances, with Diamond in particular bringing a great naturalism to the sometimes-tricky Shakespearian dialogue in his role as the Prince Don Pedro.
Longer-running Whedon alumni are also dotted liberally throughout the film, in almost all the important roles. Firefly and Serenity stars Nathan Fillion and Sean Maher play the fool and the villain respectively. Fillion’s comic timing was never in any doubt so his excellent performance as the self-important Dogberry comes as no surprise. Maher, however, makes for a far better villain that you might expect – his Don John is sly, smart, contained and sexy. I’d like to see him cast as a Black Hat more often.
Buffy’s Tom Lenk forms the other half of Fillion’s comedy double-act while Fran Kranz of Dollhouse and The Cabin in the Woods continues to surprise. He does comedy so well that it’s easy to forget that he can do far more than that. However, he and Jillian Morgese, the newcomer playing Hero (and who is the absolute spitting image of Amy Acker, whose cousin she plays here), are both constrained by the limitation of their characters and their hard-to-believe love story.
The lead roles of Beatrice and Benedick are, of course, played by former Angel lovers Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof, both of whom have appeared in their fair share of Whedon projects. Acker was last seen in The Cabin in the Woods, while Denisof was hidden under layers of prosthetics as The Other in The Avengers. Denisof is a seasoned Shakespearian actor, even performing with the RSC in the UK. Despite that, his casting feels like the biggest misstep of the film. He’s not quite sexy or smart enough, he’s not the charming chancer that the script tells us he is. He’s a talented comedic actor and happy to make a fool of himself (remember Wesley’s dance skills in Angel?) but he plays the comedy a tiny bit too broad at times.
On the other side of the equation, though, it’s perfectly clear why Benedick would be in love with Beatrice. Amy Acker brings a luminous intelligence to the role. Her Beatrice is playful and sophisticated, even when pratfalling, and has a quiet air of melancholy under all her merriness (it’s never explained, after all, why Beatrice lives with her uncle and not her own family). She balances light humour and the power of Beatrice’s frustration at being constrained by society beautifully. It’s a performance that deserves to bring her to the attention of directors who, really, should have noticed her long ago.
The comedy always works better than the tragedy in performances of Much Ado and Whedon’s production is no different. His talent for directing an ensemble cast leads to generally excellent performances across the board, and distributes the weight of the story with ease. Much of the adaptation was filmed in Whedon’s own house, which has so many convenient nooks and vantage points that it’s hard not to wonder if he bought it with an eye on one day making a movie there. The whole film looks gorgeous, despite the miniscule budget, and the naturalistic tone and style helps make the text more accessible to Shakespeare-phobes. Be warned, though, Much Ado is a clever and wordy play, despite Whedon’s judicious editing. So if you struggled to follow Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, then Much Ado About Nothing might be a little bit intimidating. The best thing to do is just go with it, and rely on Whedon’s storytelling skills to fill in the bits that have gotten a bit lost in translation since the late 1500s. Shakespeare nuts, though, and Whedon nuts, will love it.
Expected Rating: 8 out of 10