Starring Amy Acker, Alexis Denisof, Clark Gregg, Reed Diamond, Fran Kranz, Jillian Morgese, Sean Maher, Nathan Fillion, Riki Lindhomme, Spencer Treat Clark, and Ashley Johnson.
Directed by Joss Whedon
Adapted for the screen by Joss Whedon, from the play by William Shakespeare
To start with, I apologize for the unannounced absence last week. I wish I could say there were reasons beyond general mental health stuff, but, you know, sometimes, this life…aw, hell.
I’ve never seen Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing, so I won’t be comparing the two. I’ve also never read the play, so I had no idea what to expect, other than Shakespearean comedy. In addition, all of my understanding of Joss Whedon involves spaceships, superheroes, and slayers, so I didn’t really know what to think about him adapting Shakespeare in a modern setting. I’ve gotten pretty cynical about Whedon fans, who seem to always evaluate his work somewhere on the level of “OMG BEST EVAR”, so I go into each new Whedon project with an eyebrow pre-arched. These are all the expectations and lack thereof with which I sat down to watch this film.
But I’m just going to have to accept the fact that Joss Whedon is really good at what he does, and what he does is create witty, engaging, and emotionally affecting entertainment while still taking risks and making choices that somehow pay off against my expectations. Much Ado About Nothing is terrific fun and laugh-out-loud funny, and sincerely sweet. Sincerity, in fact, is probably the defining characteristic of this film, and it’s one of Whedon’s choices that pays off the best in the long run.
The overall plot, if you’re unfamiliar with the play, involves the visit of Don Pedro, the Prince of Aragon, to the house of Leonato, governor of Messina. The Prince is accompanied by Benedick, who disdains love; Claudio, who is immediately and obsessively in love with Leonato’s daughter; and Pedro’s brother John, who is a villain. Hilarity ensues as various players, chiefly Don Pedro and Leonato, set out to pair Claudio with Hero, the governor’s daughter, and more importantly Benedick, the confirmed bachelor, with Beatrice, with whom he shares a mutual loathing. Meanwhile, John (played pitch perfectly by Sean Maher of Firefly) conspires with his minions to derail all plans of marriage and alliance, humiliating his brother in the process. Why does he do this, you ask? Didn’t I say he was a villain?
Benedick and Beatrice are the first people we see, although in the opening scene neither of them speaks a word. They make up for it later, of course, but this quiet moment establishes them as our central couple. It is a moment of silence and nakedness before everyone puts on their suits, their masks, their swords and their wit. There’s a moment of adjustment once the dialogue starts, while the audience is unsure whether to laugh at the unfamiliar words coming out of Clark Gregg’s wryly smiling mouth as he looks at this Blackberry and says “I learn in this letter that Don Pedro of Aragon comes this night to Messina.” Amy Acker, as Beatrice, soon gets us into the rhythm of things, delivering her lines comically disparaging Benedick’s character in such a way that you can’t possibly miss her meaning. And once Benedick himself arrives, played by Alexis Denisof, the comedy kicks off for real. They have perfect comic chemistry as they trade barbs and insults that mask their romantic history – and, if Don Pedro has any say in the matter, romantic future – only to leave each other’s company and continue talking about their disdain for each other and for love and marriage at hilarious length.
Everyone is great in this, but Denisof deserves special praise for basically taking over any scene he’s a part of. His scenes with Acker are the standout scenes of the whole film, but his physical humor, his command of tone, everything about him shows that he is having a ball with this role, and he throws his entire self into making sure the audience comes along to the party with him. This is definitely one of those movies in which it is clear that everyone had a lot of fun just being a part of it. It probably helps that the plot involves what amounts to a week-long party, and everyone – everyone – is drinking, pouring a drink, or drunk, in just about every scene. Clark Gregg is entirely convincing as the delighted host, and he does a lot to set the tone of the film just by smiling and exchanging knowing looks with Hero or Beatrice. Even relatively minor characters get in on it, from Nathan Fillion as pompous, inept chief inspector Dogberry, to Leonato’s nameless aide, played by Joshua Zar, who is such a funny background presence in the film that I was surprised to realize that he didn’t even have a name. What all of this means is that even though the dialogue doesn’t always immediately translate into contemporary English, and some of the references are a little lost, the comedy is always apparent, and each scene is packed with touches that I can tell will reward future viewing.
Adapting Shakespeare for film is all about choices – what to cut, how to set the scene, the relative levels of sincerity and irony in each character – and Whedon’s choices make for an interesting film, including gender-flipping Conrade, resulting in a surprisingly sexy scene between Riki Lindhomme (of Garfunkel and Oates) and Sean Maher, and filming in black and white, which lends itself well to the film’s dramatic turn at Claudio and Hero’s wedding. Fran Kranz plays Claudio with almost too much obsessive intensity, and my sympathy for him is damaged badly when things go abruptly tragic. The way Whedon shoots the scene, with lots of motion and quick cuts, left me anxious and unsettled, and gave me a bit of mood whiplash after all the pratfalling of the scenes just previous with Benedick and Beatrice. This scene, and those after it, are played as straight drama, even tragedy, and while I suppose it helps us earn our happy ending, it feels very strange after laughing so hard in the first half. In a plot that hinges upon several layers of deception, perhaps it was necessary to take the dramatic scenes especially seriously, and have everyone’s emotions be utterly genuine, even if what motivated them was decidedly not.
Fortunately, this genuine feeling pays off in the end. The happy ending – it’s a Shakespearean comedy, I’m not ruining anything for you – is a relief, and the feelings that develop between Benedick and Beatrice wind up feeling more believable after tragedy forces them to lower their defenses and their masks. The scenes they share following the wedding are actually quite touching and sweet, and while I shouldn’t have been surprised that Shakespeare could write beautiful lines about love, I was surprised to find here, in this story, some of the loveliest romantic lines I’ve ever heard in a movie. Denisof’s Benedick expresses such genuine wonder at being in love that it is almost heartbreaking. Their next scene, in which Beatrice rages against the helplessness that she feels, as a woman in a patriarchal culture, to do anything about the wrong done to her cousin, is likewise a powerful bit of acting, the kind of acting and directing that takes an old thing – I had heard of this speech before, in other contexts – and makes it instantly and deeply understood in a way that I didn’t understand it before. I can’t say enough in praise of Acker and Denisof in this film, and the pleasant surprise of their romantic chemistry being as good as their comedic chemistry makes this film for me.
It’s not a perfect film, but it is a good one, and good enough that I owe Whedon an apology for approaching his films with so much cynicism lately. He is clearly on top of his game and very good at what he does, and has more than answered my doubts of how he could possibly update Shakespeare. His actors are terrific fun to watch, and even if the finer details of the story are a little hard to grasp at times, just letting Whedon and his players carry you on in a rush of drinking and witticisms and hijinx is a rewarding experience. Much Ado About Nothing is fun, funny, and a beautiful film, and a worthy adaptation.