Directed by Joss Whedon. Screenplay by Joss Whedon, based upon the play by William Shakespeare. Produced by Kai Cole, Joss Whedon. Music by Joss Whedon. Photographed by Jay Hunter. Edited by Daniel S. Kaminsky, Joss Whedon. Production designed by Cindy Chao, Michelle Yu. Starring Amy Acker, Alexis Denisof, Nathan Fillion, Clark Gregg, Reed Diamond, Fran Kranz, Jillian Morgese, Sean Maher, Spencer Treat Clark, Riki Lindhome, Ashley Johnson, Emma Bates, Tom Lenk.
What do you do for an encore when you’ve already made the highest-grossing superhero film of all time? If you’re writer/director Joss Whedon, you scale down, borrow a classic piece of Shakespeare, and film it in stark, loving black and white. Whedon, a geek entertainment icon who co-wrote and directed last years. The Avengers (as well as creating Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly and others) took the free time afforded by lengthy blockbuster post-production last spring to shoot Much Ado About Nothing, which was shot over twelve days entirely in his own house (designed by his wife, architect Kai Cole). But the resulting film is no cheap exercise – it’s a full-blooded movie: romantic, charming, visually witty, and often very funny.
Much Ado has always been one of Shakespeare’s frothier plays, a comedy where emotions are re-aligned through the power of words, and every character eventually gets their turn to play the fool. But there are real emotions that bubble underneath the farce, since Shakespeare operated in a time where even comedies were built on recognizable feelings and not gimmicks. Suffice to say, we open with Leonato (Clark Gregg), “governor of Messina,” who houses some returning war heroes: the composed Don Pedro (Reed Diamond), the naive and heartfelt Claudio (Fran Kranz) and the smug player Benedick (Alexis Denisof). Leonato has a daughter, Hero (Jillian Morgese), who is soon swept away into betrothal by Claudio, but his niece, Beatrice (Amy Acker), is feisty, disagreeable and “independent” (and you know what that means). Emboldened by Hero’s upcoming marriage, Leonato sweetly conspires with Claudio, Hero and Don Pedro to cause Beatrice to fall into mutual affection with the vain Benedick, despite the inconvenient fact that both of them absolutely loathe each other.
From the hindsight of 2013, we can see the seeds being planted for farcical romances between feuding couples that we still enjoy (and mostly suffer through) today. The romantic heat in Much Ado is supplied primarily by Beatrice and Benedick, both of whom have spurned marriage and love in the past but learn that this philosophy is harder to maintain than they thought, especially when the fates (personified by her father and company) plot against them. Meanwhile, a trio of malcontents (Sean Maher, Spencer Treat Clarke, Riki Lindhome) move against Hero and Claudio’s upcoming nuptials, using trickery to make Claudio suspect unfaithfulness, the sap. The parallels between dueling sets of manipulators cause plenty of misunderstandings, some hilarious, some hurtful. Also on hand are a bunch of inept night’ s watchmen led by Constable Dogberry (Nathan Fillion), who is so usefully buffoonish that Inspector Clouseau must dedicate a novena to him nightly.
Students of Whedon’s work will recognize many of these actors from his previous forays in TV and film. Acker and Denisof, who were paired together romantically before on Angel, have a fierce chemistry and complete mastery of the material—tricky, since much of the dialogue is about multiple ideas at once. Maher played Simon on Firefly, and here he dials down into Kubrickian coldness. Diamond and Kranz worked together before on Whedon’s short-lived Dollhouse, with the latter popping up again as the wise stoner in Cabin in the Woods. And Gregg, of course, was killed by Whedon in Avengers but has agreed to work with him again both here and in the upcoming Agents of SHIELD, good sport that he is. But perhaps the nicest addition to the Whedon stable is Jillian Morgese, who was an extra in Avengers and here finds her promoted to Hero (literally).
The other performers, including a deliciously smug Fillion (who also starred on Firefly but seems to be lampooning his new fame as a detective on ABC’s Castle) are also impressively adept at the language, which is at turns playful, ironic, clever, cruel, and sweet. The sonnets and soliloquies of the Bard have toppled many a professional actor, and the overall production is arguably well-informed by Whedon’s rapport with the cast, who often attend his weekly, boozy Shakespeare readings, for which this movie must have felt like a final dress rehearsal.
Whedon, who is no slouch at composing his own vernacular and wordplay (although he is no Shakespeare), smartly gets out of the way of the words, respecting them too much to try to top them. But this is no vacation for him as a director, despite never leaving his house. He devises several ingenious touches to comment on and highlight the absurdity of the material. Many will treasure the eavesdropping scene involving Benedick near a bank of windows, which develops into a exquisitely-timed ballet as the self-important dope tries hard not to be seen. Others will love a lush backyard memorial service lit by candles. For myself, the most sublime moment in the film is the one where Benedick’s speculations on Beatrice’s beautiful Machiavellian agendas is punctuated by a shot of his love swatting a bee from her face. Unlike some directors who are paralyzed with fear of how to treat the material, Whedon isn’t afraid of kidding it a little. He has a respectful irreverancy.
The film is set in the present but never aggressively underlines that conceit, as some more desperate Shakespeare updates have done in the past. Cars and iPhones appear, and occasional stray lines fit like square pegs (perhaps when Don Pedro is returning from “war,” they mean a corporate takeover?). But if one is sharp enough to adjust and surrender to the language, a few anachronisms hardly can break the spell. Perhaps that’s aided by the choice to shoot without color, which bestows a timeless, magical quality to the proceedings, as well as the jazzy music score, which sounds like the soundtrack to an urbane, witty party with good friends that we wish we have been invited to. And, in a very special way, we have been.
Much Ado About Nothing, the title of which is one of the English language’s longest-running dirty jokes, will consistently be read by high schoolers so long as we have functioning high schools (so, at least until next year, for certain). But as nice as it is to read, like all of Shakespeare’s work it asks to be seen, and this new film does justice to the text. It may even strike a blow for culture and make Shakespeare fans out of high schoolers. Or maybe even a few Browncoats.
NOTE: The 1993 film of Much Ado, directed by Kenneth Branagh and starring Emma Thompson, Denzel Washington and Imelda Staunton is also very much worth checking out, as long as you can stomach Keanu Reeves in the crucial role of Don John, and Kate Beckinsale as Hero. Guh.