Imagine you’ve just finished shooting The Avengers, and you have a bit of vacation before editing what will go on to be a billion-dollar summer blockbuster. What would you do with your time off?
If you’re Joss Whedon, you get a bunch of your friends together and shoot a completely different movie. At your house. For fun.
And thus we have the delight that is Mr. Whedon’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. For someone like me, it feels like the confluence of the Tigris and the Euphrates of lit and TV nerdom.
TV nerdom because Mr. Whedon’s shows — especially Buffy and Firefly — are some of the best written, most inventive shows that have ever aired (and in Firefly’s case, been canceled much too soon), which inspires rabid fandom (myself included). Lit nerdom, because Shakespeare is my favorite writer (not for nothing did I spend five years in grad school reading his plays), and Much Ado is my favorite comedy, which I taught twice to undergrads (maybe three times). I have a huge framed poster of the text of the play (all of it on one page!) in our front hall, one or our favorite wedding presents.
Shot in black and white, Much Ado never takes itself too seriously, instead recalling the screwball comedies of the thirties, which of course owe their sparring pairs, though centuries removed, to Shakespeare’s sublimely antagonistic Benedick and Beatrice. The handheld camera motions make the viewer feel part of the intimate setting, peeking over railings and through windows at the antics of the house’s inhabitants and guests. Though the tone is largely lighthearted, Mr. Whedon never shies away from the undertones of sex and violence that permeate the play. “Nothing” in early modern English was slang for the vagina (“thing” = slang for phallus; “no-thing” is its opposite), so the play’s title is a sexual pun. Sure, all the kerfuffle over Hero’s virginity turns out to be founded on nothing, but the point remains: there was, indeed, much ado about her nothing.
See? Told you I was a nerd.
All the performances are pitch perfect, and spotting regulars from Mr. Whedon’s shows was particularly fun for fans.
It’s difficult not to make comparisons with Kenneth Branagh’s succulent 1993 version of the play, in which the Tuscan landscape and lineup of stars compete for attention with the play’s mordant and often sexual wit; here we have a much more laid-back, modern approach to the language, which flows rapidly.
While Emma Thompson cannot be surpassed as Beatrice, Amy Acker is still an excellent match for Alexis Denisof’s surly (and excellent) Benedick. Nathan Fillion is the best Dogberry I’ve ever seen, with a generous assist from Tom Lenk as Vergese. And I liked newcomer Jillian Morgese as Hero, which is a tricky role to pull off without seeming like a simpering child. Ms. Morgese, elegant and restrained, finessed it beautifully. Another pleasant surprise was Sean Maher’s Don John, played here as an upper-class malcontent. Look for my favorite large change Mr. Whedon made — the relationship between Don John and Conrad.
Quibbles: I hate, hate, hate flashback sex scenes to establish characters’ mututal history (worst offender: Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet); I think they show a director’s lack of trust in Shakespeare’s language (and the audience’s ability to understand it). And I didn’t love Mr. Whedon’s additions to the play (there’s a little scene with Benedick and Margaret near the end of the movie that I’m thinking of in particular). Correct me if he simply moved a swath of text out of order.
Something I’m on the fence about: the implied Borachio/Hero backstory.
These quibbles aside, I loved the movie, and I heartily recommend it if you need a break from the blockbusters. Not that they aren’t fun too.
P.S. I have a wishlist of Benedick/Beatrice pairings I’d like to see. At the top: Bradley Whitford and Mary Louise Parker. Who’s on your list?