He’s only directed three features thus far but, between his exhaustive TV work and general pop-culture nerdiness, Joss Whedon is less a man and more a brand and a genre unto himself. Even when he does go behind the camera to make a film, it’s on his terms. His first feature was an adaptation of his (ridiculously) short-lived TV series Firefly. When he was handed the reins of a superhero movie (starring ALL THE SUPERHEROES), he made it the funniest and most quotable exemplar of its genre. Now, we get the Joss Whedon rom-com, and he’s elected to go right back to the source of many a romantic contrivance: William Shakespeare himself.”
The reverence paid to Shakespeare, deserved as it may be, overlooks the fact that so may of the tropes of so many film genres can be traced back to the plots of his plays. Once modern audiences get over their reticence for words such as ‘thy’ and ‘thou’, they will see that Much Ado About Nothing is a screwball rom-com pure and simple. Leonato (Clark Gregg) hosts a shindig to welcome Don Pedro (Reed Diamond) and his men Benedick (Alexis Denisof) and Claudio (Fran Kranz) from business deals afar. As they glimpse Leonato’s daughter Hero (Jillian Morgese) and niece Beatrice (Amy Acker), the motions are set in play for misunderstanding, mischief and a dash of malice aforethought.
Claudio sets about wooing Hero, whilst Benedick and Beatrice engage in a ‘merry war’ of snipes and apparent dislike. The rest of the household set about bringing them together, resulting in some laugh-out-loud moments, mostly courtesy of Denisof and Acker’s physical dexterity. Contrary to popular belief, it is permissible to laugh at Shakespeare. Whether due to fusty reverence or just a lack of adaptations, we tend to forget Shakespeare could draw tears of laughter as well as of sorrow. Whedon reminds us of this fact with the funniest film based on Shakespeare to date. Much Ado About Nothing transcends centuries of solemn interpretation with refreshing energy. The film was shot in black and white over twelve days at Whedon’s own house, with many of his usual repertory in the cast (Denisof, Acker and Kranz, amongst others). By inviting us into his house with his friends, Whedon gives us a very welcoming and warm film, at once familiar and feisty.
Throughout the film, there is the sense that this a complete redux of how we approach Shakespeare on film. The black-and-white camerawork comes from an aspiration to back-to-basics storytelling rather than misplaced pretension. The intimacy of the locale creates a sense of a theatre troupe putting on an impromptu production. This is drama coming from a love of performance and the story, and that love and admiration is plain to see. The chemistry between the cast is charming but not cliquey; as witticisms and malapropisms are batted about (often courtesy of Nathan Fillion’s scene-stealing Dogberry), we take pleasure in the language and the new-found energy given to it.
Alas, Shakespeare’s words doth conceal imperfect plots. We’re all having such a ball that we’re less convinced by a darkening mood and the deceit put in play by Don Pedro’s jealous brother Don John (Sean Maher) in the third act. Looks are traded, deaths are faked and it’s all a bit more complicated than modern storytelling sensibilities might allow. However, we shake the head at so long a breathing: but, I warrant thee, fair reader, the time shall not go dully by us. Whedon hath in the interim undertaken one of Hercules’ labours; which is, to bring the modern audience and the Bard into a mountain of affection the one with the other