Movie Review: Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing

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.

Much Ado full text

Full text of Much Ado

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?

Just In Case I See the Movie Version: Another Look at The Great Gatsby

Alert: Don’t read this if you haven’t read the book and want to be surprised by its plot.

Now then, to begin.

A disclaimer: I am not a Fitzgerald acolyte; the saga of F. Scott and Zelda bores me utterly. Nor am I one who thinks that The Great Gatsby is the greatest American novel of the twentieth-century. I didn’t read the novel in high school, so I have no fond or ridiculous teenage associations with the tale of summer misery, nor did I ever have the misapprehension that the book is somehow about “the American dream.” I find the famous last line overwrought.

Melodrama and pretentiousness (and not just on the part of the characters) pop up at inopportune times (for example: “So we drove on toward death in the cooling twilight”). Fitzgerald’s occasional attempts to be funny fall flat. And the casual racism, classism, and sexism the novel presents are difficult to stomach eighty-eight years after its original publication.

But then, there’s this:

“Daisy! Daisy! Daisy!” shouted Mrs. Wilson. “I’ll say it whenever I want to! Daisy! Dai—”

Making a short deft movement, Tom Buchanan broke her nose with his open hand.

The episode of domestic violence is nothing to celebrate, but look at that sentence. It is the punch. It’s short and violent, and deft. Preceded as it is by less than ten pages in Mrs. Wilson’s presence, we still know that Tom will suffer no repercussions for his abuse; Myrtle, undereducated (“I got to call up my sister too”) and out of her milieu, has signed on to play by his rules.

I found, as I re-read the novel, that what I appreciate more than the plot or the atmosphere of the novel is the crafting of it. The narrative spins out in unusual ways, and sometimes the lyricism for which Fitzgerald is so often celebrated serves a perfect purpose, like a sorbet cleansing the palate between courses (or so I’ve been told; I’ve never been to that type of dinner). The characterization is often gracefully accomplished — Jordan Baker balancing something on the tip of her nose, or Daisy’s voice that sounds like money, for example. And certainly, Fitzgerald gives the reader a feel for the dissolute post-war, pre-crash golden days of New York and Long Island; to me, it rather feels like a documentary parading a host of sad and lonely people whose access to great wealth only makes them hideous.

[An exception is Gatsby’s father, who appears with his son’s itemized self-improvement list to humanize a dead man whose very dreams were a facade. Gatsby’s father is merely sad and lonely, an afterthought in his son’s calculations.]

Despite its technical successes, the novel is about unpleasant people who do unpleasant things and occasionally veer off into unconscionable acts, and thus I do not find it to be a particularly pleasant reading experience.

Fast Read: Matthew Quick, Silver Linings Playbook

My husband and I have been out together, sans bebe, a grand total of once this year, and it was to see Silver Linings Playbook. We were surprised that Bradley Cooper can really act (though we shouldn’t have been — he’s hilarious in Wet Hot American Summer) and agreed that Jennifer Lawrence is pretty rad.  As we left the theater, we talked about how we felt like we’d seen a good movie; not a flick, not an art-house piece (we like those too), but a good solid movie.

So we bought the book.

I zipped through it in about two and a half hours on Saturday night (can you tell we have a toddler?). It’s different from the movie, of course; Pat Peoples is more disturbed and more interesting the book, but I think the other characters—particularly Pat’s father and Tiffany—are fleshed out more in the movie.

Still, the book is an engaging picture of mental illness and the glories and lows of fandom, with some very funny passages to boot. Lit geeks will love Pat’s short reviews of classic American novels. My favorite:

Maybe Puritans were simply dumber than modern people, but I cannot believe how long it took those seventeenth-century Bostonians to figure out that their spiritual leader knocked up the local hussy. [. . .] I know we were assigned Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter back in high school, and if I had known the book was filled with so much sex and espionage, I might have read it when I was sixteen. (Matthew Quick, Silver Linings Playbook, 57)

A quick read, with short chapters; might be perfect for beach season, especially if you’re taking turns chasing a toddler.