There’s been much ballyhoo about the origins of Joss Whedon’s version of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. With some time on his hands while filming The Avengers, he made what in many ways is the diametrically opposed kind of movie than the superhero epic. He got some of his friends and shot the Bard’s 1599 comedy in his own house.
But the backstory of the film should not overwhelm the fact that it is one of the best films of the year and one of the most satisfying adaptations of Shakespeare that I’ve seen in many years. It is exquisitely acted and edited, and though there seems to be no reason other than financial why it was shot in black and white, it looks great. I could watch it again right now.
I put Much Ado about mid-tier in Shakespeare’s comedies–certainly not as good as Twelfth Night or A Mid-Summer Night’s Dream, but much better than the almost impossible to understand today Love’s Labour’s Lost. The title is a bit of a pun that is lost today–“nothing” and “noting” were homophone’s in Shakespeare’s day, noting being a synonym for eavesdropping, which is prevalent in the telling of the story. There is also the familiar Shakespearean trope of mistaken identity. While it is certainly a comedy–all ends well, with two marriages–there is a pall of melancholy that gets pretty intense at times.
The plot is pretty basic for Shakespeare (and Whedon has done judicious cutting). There are two parallel love stories set at the home of Leonato, who is hosting the prince, Don Pedro. Claudio pines for Hero, the daughter of a nobleman Leonato. Their love for each other is pure and instantaneous. The other pair is Beatrice and Benedick, who at the start of the play hate each other, and exchange wicked insults. Benedick, on first sight of her, says: “What, my dear Lady Disdain: are you yet living?”
Don Pedro, on something of a lark, tries to push Beatrice and Benedick together, and employs the whole household in his plan, having people gossip that they love each other while the objects of the plan are eavesdropping. Meanwhile, Pedro’s evil brother, Don John, tries to break up Hero and Claudio by having one of his minions seduce a servant girl while Claudio watches, thinking it is Hero. This leads to a painful wedding at which Claudio refuses her hand, basically calling her a slut.
Much Ado is one of the more accessible of Shakespeare’s plays to modern audiences, and Whedon, though it is contemporized (we get iPods and smartphones) consistently makes good choices to make the play clear. So often I see productions in which the director bends over backwards to make sure the audience understands the language when it really isn’t necessary. Whedon doesn’t condescend to the audience.
The actors, with one exception, are marvelous. Clark Gregg, the only actor who did double duty here and in The Avengers, makes a wonderful Leonato, and Alexis Denisoff makes a suitably vain and clueless Benedick. The clowns of the piece are the constable Dogberry, who bumbles his way to save the day, and he is played with deadpan dimness by Nathan Fillion. Some of his scenes with his deputy, played with Reno 911 flair by Tom Lenk, are very funny. I laughed at loud at a scene in which they lock their keys in the car.
Special praise should be given to Amy Acker as Beatrice. I’ve never heard of her before, and I see her credits are mostly supporting roles on TV series. But she is a constant delight in this picture, beautiful and vivacious. She didn’t exhibit one false note. Unfortunately, Jillian Morghese as Hero doesn’t fare well. She has a community theater stiffness about her that makes her stand out in a negative way.
I did find a few puzzling things about the play. There is a prologue that has Benedick sadly sneaking away from Beatrice’s bed. Was this before they fall in love, or after (the key is his shaved face). I also found it odd that Whedon casts a woman, Riki Lindhome, in a male role (that of Conrade) but does not change the gender of the nouns. It’s fine to cast a woman in that role, but why continue to have her referred to as a man?
Amid all the blockbusters this season, Much Ado About Nothing is really the perfect summer movie. I almost floated out of the theater.
My grade for Much Ado About Nothing: A