Whedon blends Shakespeare, screwball comedy in entertaining ‘Much Ado About Nothing’
Who else but Joss Whedon could pull this off? Not only does he set William Shakespeare’s romantic comedy, Much Ado About Nothing, original Elizabethan-era wit and wordplay intact, in modern-day Santa Monica, he shoots it in black-and-white—a visual detail that suggests the sparkling vintage screwball comedies of the 1930s more than the Elizabethan stage. It’s an impudent idea for a movie realized with great charm and affection by a master craftsman and his devoted repertory company of players.
As a writer and director, Whedon is best known for a particularly wry and sophisticated brand of horror/fantasy/sci-fi genre work, from Buffy and Firefly on TV to Cabin In the Woods, and The Avengers on the big screen. Much Ado is something completely different; a project that as been dear to his heart for a long time, it was shot in just 12 days, using Whedon’s own Santa Monica home and its grounds as the principal set. The immediacy of this shooting process only helps to remind us how timeless and timely Shakespearean stories can be.
Not that you need to know the play to enjoy the film. The central story of a bantering couple too busy flinging defensive witticisms at each other to realize they’re in love is prime romantic comedy fodder in any era. Here they are played con brio by Alex Denisof and Amy Acker: he’s Benedick, a confirmed bachelor convinced no woman will ever be paragon enough for him, and she’s his favorite sparring partner, the “merry” Beatrice, who “mocks her suitors out of suit,” in search of a worthy man who can be her match.
The exposition is dispensed with quickly enough. The warrior prince, Don Pedro (Reed Diamond) returns from a successful campaign with his retinue, which includes the seasoned Benedick and his young friend, Claudio (Fran Kranz), and Leonato’s disgraced brother, Don Jon (Sean Maher). They arrive to spend a week with Don Pedro’s friend and ally, Leonato (Clark Gregg), at the home he shares with his virtuous daughter, Hero (Jillian Morgese), and his niece, Beatrice.
Then the plot kicks in. Claudio and Hero fall in love and plan to wed at the end of the week; to amuse themselves until then, they scheme with Leonato and Don Pedro to “trick” Beatrice and Benedick into falling in love as well. Meanwhile, a more sinister plot is cooked up by the killjoy Don John and his cohorts to convince Claudio that the virginal Hero has been unfaithful to him. (Since Whedon makes one of Don John’s confederates a woman, a lot of his villainous exposition plays out onscreen as pillow talk.)
The Shakespearean dialogue sounds a bit odd in this setting at first, but we quickly get used to it thanks to the actors’ breezy delivery. (Including Nathan Fillion, very funny as Dogberry, here a malapropping, pompous but never mean-spirited police chief.) And Whedon always has something interesting going on in the frame, especially in his adroit use of the house interiors. The camera is always trailing after characters down hallways, or spying on them over balconies or through grille work. Benedick and Claudio are quartered in a girl’s bedroom complete with stuffed animals and Barbie dolls. Denisof delivers an entire soliloquy while jogging up and down an outside staircase.
The masked ball is staged poolside at night, with a pair of trapeze artists for entertainment, entwining to a soft-jazz version of Shakespeare’s famous song, “Sigh No More.” (Whedon also adapted the songs, including the backdrop to a lovely candlelight procession at dusk.) When Benedick “overhears” the others inside discussing how much Beatrice loves him, his head pops up hilariously in every window in the room; when Beatrice hears a similar conversation, she pratfalls down the kitchen stairs in shock.
Ultimately it’s up to the two of them to carry the story, and wry Denisof and vivacious Acker make a splendid job of it. Whedon has the smart idea that they’ve already been bedmates, but in typical modern fashion, sex doesn’t necessarily mean they’ve yet learned to value each other. Denisof and Acker are not only funny as hell, but they bring emotional urgency to the perilous ebb and giddy flow of their thoroughly modern romance.
MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING ★ ★ ★ (out of four)
With Amy Acker, Alexis Denisof, Clark Gregg, and Nathan Fillion. Written by William Shakespeare. Adapted and directed by Joss Whedon. A Roadside Attractions release. Rated PG-13. 107 minutes.