All's Well That Ends Well

Joss Whedon's Much Ado About Nothing is delightful

Really, it sounds terrible. William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, updated to the present day with the bard’s (abridged) text spoken by actors wearing contemporary garb? Ugh. Enough with the Shakespeare updates, OK? And by Joss Whedon? Mr. Pop Culture? You’re killing me.

It would be wonderful (not really) to report that this cold critic’s heart remained icy, that this new Much Ado was as rotten as Denmark during Hamlet’s time. It ain’t. In fact, Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing is delightful, fun and full of life. (But I reserve to the right to re-shrink my cold critic’s heart in the future.)

Whedon’s last few movies have been markedly different from each other. Remember, he wrote and directed the gargantuan (and surprisingly giddy) Marvel movie version of The Avengers. He co-wrote the genre-bending and could-have-been-dumb-but-was-a-laugh-riot The Cabin in the Woods, in which it is explained to us, the audience, why horror movies follow a path from which they never diverge. He’s also responsible for the TV shows Firefly, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel.

So, why not tackle Shakespeare? Why not cast your friends (many of the actors have appeared in Whedon’s TV shows and movies)? Why not let the words roll trippingly on the tongue (wrong play, but whatevs)? Why not shoot an ultra low-budget version in your own home in 12 days? WHY NOT?

Somehow the unfussiness of the production and the speed under which it was made contributes to its freshness. And the Santa Monica setting belies the notion that contemporary Shakespeare updates are necessarily bad (or at best, mediocre). When there’s this much passion invested, and the actors are this game, the fact that we’re holstering guns instead of sheathing swords doesn’t much matter.

The story, in case you’re far removed from English class: Leonato (Clark Gregg) lives in Messina with his daughter, Hero (Jillian Morgese), and niece, Beatrice (Amy Acker). The story begins with Leonato welcoming home old friends from war, including Don Pedro (Reed Diamond), Claudio (Fran Kranz) and Benedick (Alexis Denisof). There’s also Don John (Sean Maher), Don Pedro’s illegitimate brother, who exists for the sole purpose of making trouble for everyone else.

And make trouble he does. Claudio falls in love with Hero and they plan to marry, but Don John has one of his henchman trick Claudio and Don Pedro into thinking Hero is a tramp, and they shun her publicly. Meanwhile, Don Pedro, Leonato and Claudio try to get Beatrice and Benedick together, thinking their outward mutual revulsion hides secret love. 

You know the rest, right? (Spoiler alert: It works out for everyone.)

I’ve always marveled at the fact that someone (say, Shakespeare) can take a public shunning, false claims of non-purity and threats of death (and fake deaths), and make it light and airy. But that’s Much Ado About Nothing, and Whedon and the cast show respect for the text, and also clearly love tearing into the words. 

Acker, in particular, has fun, making Beatrice bouncy but still serious and passionate; she’s no one’s fool (until she is, of course). Denisof’s Benedick is nearly her equal, though his voiceover-ready larynx occasionally threatens to get in the way.

Kranz does wonders with Claudio, moving successfully back and forth between simmering rage when he believes Hero has been with another, and chastened sadness when he thinks she’s died as a result of his accusations. And Whedon works in some nifty directorly touches, as when Don John steals a cupcake at the wedding reception after he’s brought the proceedings to a screeching halt. 

The best performance belongs to Diamond. He sounds as if he’s been speaking Shakespeare’s text as long as he’s been speaking, truly comfortable in the role of Don Pedro. Nathan Fillion is an appropriately goofy, yet somehow understated, Dogberry.

So, get thee to a multiplex, and see Much Ado About Nothing. (Here, mercifully, endeth my corny wordplay.) 

Directed by Joss Whedon
With Amy Acker, Alexis Denisof and Nathan Fillion

CCA Cinematheque
108 min.


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