How do I become friends with Joss Whedon? If this is how he spends his vacations, filming Shakespeare adaptations at his absolutely stunning house with a troupe of enormously talented actors and friends, then sign me up. Much Ado About Nothing is damn near perfect, the melding of two brilliant minds across 400 years. It’s clear that both Joss and his cast have a deep understanding both of the subject matter and the Shakespearean dialogue, and I hope we get to see a lot more of this sort of thing from him, once The Avengers 2 is done filming.
Much Ado About Nothing tells the story of two romances that take place as a prince comes to stay with a local governor. The prince, Don Pedro, arrives with two of his officers, Benedick and Claudio, and they agree to stay for a month with the governor, Leonato, with whom live his daughter, Hero, and his niece, Beatrice. Benedick and Beatrice have a history, and are frequently verbal sparring partners, trading cruel jibes whenever they meet. Benedick is a devoted bachelor, and Beatrice disdains most of the men she knows, and their rivalry forms one leg of the movie. Pedro, Claudio and Leonato devise a plan to get the two to fall in love, despite their constant bickering. At the same time, Claudio falls for Hero, but Don Pedro’s brother, Don John, contrives a villainous scheme to ruin the relationship.
The cast is truly spectacular, navigating the schemes, masquerades, comedy and drama in a way that would probably be surprising to non-Whedonites. There are very few faces that would be recognizable to the general public (the exception being Nathan Fillion, well known for Castle but having starred in Firefly, Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer), but almost everyone has appeared in previous Whedon productions. Alexis Denisof (Buffy, Angel, Dollhouse, The Avengers) stars as Benedick with Amy Acker (Angel, Dollhouse, The Cabin in the Woods) as Beatrice. Fran Kranz (Dollhouse, Cabin) continues to impress me every time I see him, masterfully handling the comedy along with heartbreak, while Clark Gregg (The Avengers, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) does the same as Leonato. Reed Diamond’s (Dollhouse) Don Pedro shines in his cheerful manipulations, while Sean Maher (Firefly) makes a surprising villain, giving Don John a bitterness that fits perfectly. And then there’s Fillion, who plays bumbling constable, Dogberry, whose malapropisms fly by without a pause. His obsession with being called an ass (“Never forget that I am an ass”) is especially funny, and he’s paired with Tom Lenk (Buffy, Angel, Cabin). The only big newcomer to Whedon’s troupe is Jillian Morgese as Hero, and her sweetness and charm make her a perfect fit with the group.
Sorry for the list, but the connections between these performers and the director are important to understanding why Much Ado About Nothing work so well. Many of these people have known each other and worked together for more than a decade. Nowhere is this more evident than between Denisof and Acker. They acted side by side on Angel for over 3 seasons, including a stretch as romantic partners, and they have a chemistry that can’t be faked. Their timing in the barbs that Benedick and Beatrice fling at each other would be impossible for another pair to develop during a 12 day shoot. They’re comfortable around each other and that gives their performances a confidence that would be lacking with a different cast. In many ways it’s similar to the chemistry between Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson in their Shakespearean adaptations, but it feels looser and more effortless.
Whedon entirely uses Shakespeare’s dialogue, editing only for length and changing one outdated derogatory slur out of politeness. He keeps the pace brisque, cutting dialogue that doesn’t advance the plot or the characters. Yet he manages to add so much of his trademark wit, humor and heart without ever using the writing skills that made him so famous. His staging maximizes the feelings of the scenes; for example, when Claudio, Leonato and Pedro stage a false conversation for Benedick to hear, the actors wander around his living room having the conversation, all while communicating with looks and gestures how the dialogue should proceed. But the entire time, Benedick is outside the window spying (as planned by the trio) and Alexis Denisof shows off his physical comedy skills as he tries to eavesdrop without being spotted. (There’s also a funny moment when Dogberry and Verges get locked out of their car.) It’s the sort of thing that doesn’t exist in the text and shows why so many of us admire Whedon’s creativity.
As I said before, he filmed the entire movie at his house when he was supposed to be on vacation, and he finds some clever ways to use his home. (For example, Benedick and Claudio’s room at Leonato’s home must belong to a little girl, with its twin beads, butterflies on the walls and oodles of stuffed animals.) It’s a gorgeous setting, even more so in black and white, and when combined with some beautiful lighting gives the film a jazzy yet timeless feel. The costumes are all modern formalwear, and the officers carry guns instead of swords, there are ipods and smartphones mixed in for great effect, yet it never feels like the modern setting in strained. It’s, in many ways, the opposite of some of the other high profile modern adaptations, like Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, which try too hard to make it feel modern. Much Ado is relaxed, and feels almost like an improvised play being performed at Whedon’s home by his friends (which, in a way, it was).
It’s clear that this was a work of love from Whedon. Anyone who might question why he would choose to adapt Shakespeare clearly doesn’t know much about him, as he often referenced it in his shows (“We few, we happy few.” “We band of buggered.”). As for why he chose this particular play to adapt, he’s said he likes how it challenges the roles society sets for us, and is about how love reaches maturity when it escapes the ideals of romantic love that are planted in our heads. For me, the strongest Whedon connection to the material came during Beatrice’s feminist monologue, lamenting the role she had been placed in because of her sex, and how the men around her refuse to play their roles, leaving a void she can’t feel. “O God, that I were a man! I would eat his heart in the market-place,” she says. It gave me chills, and it’s exactly the sort of thing that Whedon would have written for one of his strong female characters.
(Whedon even wrote the score for the film, and wrote music for two of the songs from the original text, which are sung and performed by his brother and sister-in-law, and frequent collaborators, Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen. The score is jazzy, simple and pretty, and I’ve been listening to the song “Sigh No More” repeatedly today.)
I have to confess that despite being a huge Shakespeare fan, I was always more drawn to the dramas and histories than the comedies. I’ve felt like the dramas are more timeless, and easier to find a place for in modern times, whereas the comedies were very tied into the social structure of the time. That doesn’t mean that they’re not funny and that there aren’t great characters and situations to be found, but it requires a greater knowledge of the context of the period to appreciate. What Whedon has done here is remove the need for context, getting at the important parts of the plot without getting bogged down in things that no longer apply. It makes me want to go back and reread both the comedies I liked (Twelfth Night) and those I didn’t (Measure for Measure) and try to get at the heart of them, the way Whedon does here with Much Ado About Nothing. And really, if there’s a better sign of the film’s quality than the fact that it makes me want more, then I don’t know what that would be. He’s taken everything I love about Whedon and his troupe and combined it with everything I love about Shakespeare, and given us the best film of the year so far. I can’t recommend it enough.