Much Ado about Nothing (United States, 2012)June 19, 2013
For a filmmaker like Joss Whedon, known world-wide for playing with huge budgets in genre entertainment, the choice to bring to the screen one of Shakespeare's most popular comedies using a low-budget, "experimental" style might seem an odd choice. But this has long been a dream project for Whedon and, although it was filmed just after The Avengers, the blockbuster success of the superhero movie assured its release. The most interesting aspect of Much Ado about Nothing is that it illustrates Whedon's ability to make a movie that relies exclusively on performances and dialogue. There are no special effects. There are no action sequences. The setting is Whedon's house. It's in black-and-white, a stylistic choice that, in conjunction with the modern-day setting, forms a dream-like milieu. (Shakesepeare and iPhones - perfect together!)
To date, there has only been one other notable cinematic adaptation of the play, but that one was something of a landmark achievement. It's impossible to discuss Whedon's Much Ado about Nothing without at least mentioning Kenneth Branagh's version. Twenty years old this summer, Branagh's adaptation has stood for two decades as a remarkable achievement in exuberance. It's a grand, passionate dip into the Bard's stream. In many ways, Whedon's much smaller, less grandiose production is its antithesis. Both movies play up the romance between Beatrice (played here by Amy Acker) and Benedick (Alexis Denisof) and the comedy that ensues when sparks begin to fly between these two. However, Whedon substitutes black-and-white understatement for Branagh's full color spectacle. Lesser known TV actors supplant big-name stars. Modern-day Southern California replaces period Tuscany. In general, everything is toned down.
Much Ado about Nothing, which is ostensibly set in Messina, is a romantic comedy focused on two couples. The first, Beatrice and Benedick, are sharp-tongued rivals whose apparent despite covers a deeper passion that their friends help bring to the surface. The second, Claudio (Fran Kranz) and Hero (Jillian Morgese), appear destined to be together until the efforts of the villainous Don John (Sean Maher) drive a wedge between them that results in Claudio denouncing Hero on their wedding day. Eventually, Don John's duplicity is discovered through the efforts of the inept constable Dogberry (Nathan Fillon), Hero's honor is restored, and everything ends happily.
Alongside The Taming of the Shrew, Much Ado about Nothing can lay claim to being one of the most accessible of Shakepeare's comedies. The dramatic elements mesh well with the frivolous ones, Beatrice and Benedick have some delightful one-liners, and the opportunities for physical comedy are plentiful. Whedon has sensibly abridged the text (choosing almost identical cuts to the ones chosen by Branagh, thereby making comparisons between the two more apples-to-apples), speeding up the pace. The film moves briskly and only occasionally seems to hit rough patches.
While the Beatrice/Benedick scenes shine and the Dogberry sequences are fun, the movie encounters some difficulties when focused on other characters. To a degree, this is a problem inherent in the play but Branagh was able to get around it, at least in part, by intriguing casting, a great score by Patrick Doyle, and gorgeous photography. Whedon is less successful. Claudio and Hero are dull and vanilla, and it's difficult to become invested in their romance. The secondary characters, such as Don Pedro (Reed Diamond) and Leonato (Clark Gregg), lack depth. And the villain, Don John, is one-dimensional. (Keanu Reeves' portrayal of this role in Branagh's version was arguably that film's lone misstep.)
Much Ado about Nothing is principally about performances since Whedon rejects directorial flourishes. The style is classical - frequent medium shots and extended takes. The various instances when modern technology comes into play (such as the iPhone shot of Dogberry apprehending Don John) seem almost jarring because, for the most part, this replicates the feel of something made decades ago. The concept of "timelessness" comes to mind. It's a welcome change to sit in a movie theater and experience things like acting, dialogue, and human emotion without worrying about something blowing up.
There are three standout actors. Like most of the cast members of Much Ado about Nothing, Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof have a history with Whedon, so they're obviously comfortable with his direction. Their performances are note-perfect. They deliver the Shakespearean dialogue with perfect inflection, evidence great chemistry, and draw the viewer's attention to them. Nathan Fillion's Dogberry is pure comic relief with the actor showing not only perfect timing but the ability to make physical humor stupid and funny instead of merely stupid. Clark Gregg, perhaps the biggest "name" in the cast (and a late addition) delivers Leonardo's dialogue with relish but is saddled with a character whose role is limited. Reed Diamond, Fran Kranz, and Sean Maher are forgettable and newcomer Jillian Morgese is appealing but spends too much time in the background.
In terms of cinematic achievement, Whedon's Much Ado about Nothing doesn't challenge Branagh's version, but this is a welcome arrival in a season of discontent. The play Much Ado about Nothing suffers from cinematic underexposure (unlike, for example, Hamlet) so its arrival is doubly welcome. Whedon has made the Bard accessible and that achievement places him alongside Branagh in the exclusive club of directors who can handle both superheroes and Shakespeare effectively.
Much Ado about Nothing (United States, 2012)
Cast: Amy Acker, Alexis Denisof, Nathan Fillion, Clark Gregg, Reed Diamond, Fran Kranz, Jillian Morgese, Sean Maher
Screenplay: Joss Whedon, based on the play by William Shakespeare
Cinematography: Jay Hunter
Music: Joss Whedon
U.S. Distributor: Lionsgate/Roadside Attractions