Whedon’s “Much Ado About Nothing” Gets High Marks

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I am a pretty big Shakespeare fan. I haven’t got it as bad as some, but I take my love seriously. So when I heard Much Ado About Nothing was getting another movie, I was excited. But when I heard it was by Joss Whedon, I was very cautious. Don’t get me wrong, I love Joss Whedon. I love him so very much. But this combination had me worried. Then when he announced his casting, I was still worried. Performed in the original text on the big screen, Much Ado followed predecessors like Luhrman’s Romeo + Juliet or even Branaugh’s Much Ado from 1993, one more stylistically similar and one based on the same source. My love for literature goes beyond my love for nerdy things, it is on another plane. With actors that had little to no stage experience or Shakespeare experience, I was anxious but still excited.

Much Ado is among one of the funniest Shakespeare comedies, it’s also one of the most maleable ones. As opposed to his Historicals or even sometimes his Tragedies, the Comedies can be laugh-out-loud-stomach-in-pain, or just chuckle comedies. Mostly, it’s just not suppose to be a play where someone gets stabbed and poisoned all in one fencing match. I’ve heard a reviewer claim the humor of the play all to Whedon, and I just can’t agree with that, though Whedon does bring his own twist on the humor. I think his built relationship between characters is what makes this a great revival.

Whedon’s Much Ado is a film that gets the highest marks in my book. As far as revivals go, I have to say that the general set up of the story is a hit or miss for me. In a modernized Much Ado, Don Pedro and Leonato are something like business associates who are being documented during their weekend get away. The modern step is a little forced, with a photographer following them around. I couldn’t quite get a feel for what was happening, especially when they show Don John being brought in in zip ties with Conrade and Borachio. There were guns and it was a private villa, I got more of a feel of mob/black market dealings rather than some sort of political move. Who brings their annoying possibly maniacal brother to a party anyways, especially if you have to zip tie him?

Somehow they managed to make those horrible masks perfect for the party. Good for them!

Somehow they managed to make those horrible masks perfect for the party. Good for them!

But after the party arrives, it all gets better. The setting is perfect, a private little villa home that is large enough to landscape the story, but private enough to keep the cast in line. Set at his own home, Whedon seemingly did very little to his own environment, even keeping his daughters rooms the same, with all of the stuffed animals intact, as Claudio and Benedick’s room. The party is perfect, played to a slow jazzy theme and sensuous acrobats, with plenty of wine and cheese. It’s the modern version of an Italian extravaganza. The usage of the setting is done even better, from the swimming pool to the stairs, everything is used for a purpose.

Now when I said I was cautious about the casting, it’s partially because, when I saw the panel at Wondercon this year, and they were all speaking, it felt unsure. Like the cast didn’t know their characters as well as they should have. I’m saying this as a self-identified Beatrice searching for my Benedick in life. But I was so pleasantly surprised when Amy Acker hit the nail on the head with Beatrice and Alexis Denisof won my heart with Benedick. I loved the input of their past relationship, that I felt was always hinted at in the original text but never really explored. The fact that they had a sexual relationship before made the mutual pining much more reasonable.

One of the best interpretations of this couple.

One of the best interpretations of this couple.

Bringing some kind of karma to the world, Whedon manages to reuinte Fred and Wesley and somehow makes it work perfectly. I have never laughed so hard during the courting scenes as when Beatrice took a very sharp tumble down some stairs after hearing how much Benedick has been besotted with her. But it wasn’t just the main coupling.

Fran Kranz and newcomer Jillian Morgese played perfect Claudio and Hero. Morgese exceeded Kate Beckinsale’s performance in the 1993 version (also one of her first roles), in creating a Hero that I felt more protective of. Kranz’s almost twitchy Claudio was perfection for me, and made a great love addled youngster. Both the image of young and inexperienced love. Clark Gregg and Reed Diamond are great casts as Leonato and Don Pedro, though Gregg will forever be Coulson for me, this was a great role for him to step out of that suit-and-tie persona.

But, ranking close to perfect, for me, was Sean Maher’s Don John. After a memory of Keanu Reeves playing a milquetoast Don John, I was excited to see Sean Maher. Immediately he played the perfect villain, and the recast of Conrade as a woman played by Riki Lindhome was great. The two danced through scenes together, with Spencer Treat Clark’s Borachio causing trouble along the way. It was a great trio. To play off of them, was a hilarious Dogberry by Nathan Fillion. Aside from Maher’s perfect Don John, Fillion’s Dogberry ranked at the top. I knew, without a doubt, that he would be a great Dogberry and he was. Nothing more to say about it.

Dogberry is always good for a chuckle, but Fillion adds his own charm to the character and it soars.

Dogberry is always good for a chuckle, but Fillion adds his own charm to the character and it soars.

The one thing I think that helped the black and white was the score. Personally, I found that the black and white was unnecessary. It laid some ambiance to the story, but all in all, it could have been in color and had the same effect for me. Although, the scenes of the party mixed with the music were some of the best usages of the black and white, as well as the scene of Hero’s wedding. 

The greatest part for me, however, was the direction of the film and how it interpreted one of my favorite comedies by the Poet. Many films that do hard revivals of Shakespeare under play the humor or fail in the direction to make a line funny to the audience because of the language. Everyone knows that Shakespeare is hard to understand. There are multiple layers and I think that Whedon achieved a perfect level of mixing comedy, the English language, and the modern age.

The classic slapstick humor that comes with Much Ado, as with the “courting” of Benedick and Beatrice, is done perfectly and always a laugh. But also the subtle lines delivered by Fillion’s Dogberry, as well as the general wittiness of the casts’ lines was directed in such a manner that seemed to take the confusion out of Shakespeare.

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All in all, Whedon surprised me. He showed me he can do more than just his niche. I know, I’ve spoken blasphemy. But he is the kind of director who seems to be put into the same type of production. There is nothing wrong with someone who is really good in one area, which he is, but as an artist I have always wondered if he has wanted to venture out of his comfort zone. And this was just so far left field and so spectacular that I am a little speechless. Definitely a must see for all literature lovers, and non-lit lovers.

Overall score: A

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