Editor’s note: Our review of Joss Whedon’s latest originally ran during this year’s SXSW film festival, but we’re re-running it as the film opens in limited theatrical release.
William Shakespeare has had more film adaptations of his work than any other writer by a wide margin, and that trend shows no sign of stopping anytime soon. The reasons for this are varied and exhaustive, but few would argue it’s not a great thing to see. While most filmmakers maintain the Bard’s language and historical settings, some move the action and wordplay into the present with varying degrees of success.
The latest director to do so, and one of the few to do so brilliantly, is Joss Whedon.
Yes, that Joss Whedon.
His Much Ado About Nothing is updated to modern Los Angeles with limousines, semiautomatic pistols and men in suits, but he keeps Shakespeare’s language intact. The tale takes place almost entirely at the compound of a government official named Leonato (Clark Gregg) who’s visited by fellow dignitary Don Pedro (Reed Diamond) and his two immediate officers, Benedick (Alexis Desinof) and Claudio (Fran Kranz). The latter falls in love with Leonato’s daughter Hero (Jillian Morgese), while the former has a friction-filled and antagonistic past with the man’s niece Beatrice (Amy Acker). It’s not all foreplay and country matters, though, as Don Pedro’s manipulative brother, Don John (Sean Maher), is intent on disrupting political relations by destroying relationships.
Further plot specifics should be unnecessary as most viewers will be familiar with the play itself via any number of stage productions or earlier adaptations, including Kenneth Branagh’s all star (and quite entertaining) 1993 version, but the gist of the story is a look at two pairs of lovers struggling through the act of courtship. The younger pair are rocked by scandal and deception while the older, ostensibly wiser couple find the only obstacle in their way is themselves. It’s words that bind both couples while also threatening to break them apart.
Wordplay and language are unsurprisingly at the core of the story here, and Shakespeare’s writing shines with big laughs, real emotion and a master class in innuendo. From the title alluding to the “no thing” between a woman’s legs to sly references to sex itself, the play (and by extension the film) offers a constant stream of wit and romance. Whedon made minor additions to the dialogue to beef up one character’s motivation, but it’s otherwise entirely straight from the play itself.
The cast was contacted by Whedon over the course of a month before being gathered to his actual home for twelve days of filming. Most of the players have worked with the director before, either in film or television, but a few are newcomers, including the lovely Morgese, who Whedon first witnessed working as an extra on The Avengers. The other common thread among them is that most of the cast had never performed Shakespeare before.
Thankfully, they all acquit themselves wonderfully here. Kranz does well with a romantic lead role that moves far outside his usual nerdy-pothead persona, while Fillion and Tom Lenk deliver fantastic comic timing and chemistry as the somewhat bumbling law enforcers Dogberry and Verges. The standouts, though, by the play’s design as well as their own shining talent, are Acker and Desinof. Their sarcastic and not-so-subtley cruel interactions are played with fire and delight as the two cross wits in public only to pine for the other in private. They both exude sly charisma already, and it’s only enhanced through Shakespeare’s genius.
As mentioned above, Whedon made a very minor dialogue addition, but he found more freedom on the visual front. Characters are allowed more reactionary room adding expressions, gestures and pauses not present in the play that add immense comedic value here. He’s added some subtle visual gags in the form of props not available to Shakespeare, including a very funny cut to a Barbie dollhouse, and he finds a sexier tone at times as well. Finally, Whedon’s already beautiful home and surrounding grounds are made moreso by the film’s black and white photography, which also adds a somewhat timeless feel to the proceedings.
Much Ado About Nothing is one of Shakespeare’s best and most memorable plays, and Whedon has delivered a whimsical, enchanting and laugh aloud adaptation that should find a welcome embrace with fans new and old. His decision to update the setting while retaining the language finds a near perfect balance between new visual opportunities and the Bard’s impeccable words.
The Upside: Funny, sweet and sexy; cast does fantastic work with the Bard’s language; Joss Whedon’s visual additions add immense amount of humor.
The Downside: As a direct adaptation of a centuries old play that’s been adapted dozens of times before the film may lack originality and surprise.
On the Side: Daniel S. Kaminsky was Joss Whedon’s assistant on The Avengers before becoming a producer on this film. Not a bad transition.