Say what you want about old Bill Shakespeare, but he was certainly brave with his titles.
No contemporary writer would give their play a title that so openly embraced it being a farce, a comedic situation in which a great deal is made of very little. The sardonic loglines, as my most recent Tweet currently indicates, pretty much write themselves. Still, Shakespeare, it’s easy to forget, was a jobbing playwright, less worried about the critics than bums in seats. Though this newest adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing by Joss Whedon practically guarantees both.
Shot during a twelve-day break during post-production on The Avengers, Whedon somehow managed to assemble (a-hey!) a troupe of some of the finest actors he’s worked with to commit to the textbook definition of a passion project. And for a piece of cinema that probably took less time to put together than Tony Stark’s wardrobe, it definitely works.
Benedick and Beatrice (Alexis Denisof & Amy Acker) play a pair of warring wits whose one-night stand long since put them at odds, that is until a coterie of their friends secretly contrive to throw them back into affection. Meanwhile, the naïve passions of Claudio and Hero (Fran Kranz & Jillian Morgese) are thrown into acidulous disarray by malevolent machinations.
The whole cast breathe new life into Shakespeare’s words, illuming every antiquated phrase, making the lover’s banter seem fresh and sharp. The house in which the film is set, Whedon’s own, is wonderfully interconnected, providing countless opportunities for eavesdropping and misunderstandings, which play perfectly into the play’s famous gulling scene.
The “gulling” scene, in which first Benedick then Beatrice separately learn of the others’ supposed love for them, are master classes in physical comedy as both Denisof and Acker tumble and sprawl as they endeavor to discover all they can while remaining incognito. That Benedick’s occurs outside the patio windows and Beatrice’s beneath the kitchen surfaces is a perfect counterpoint.
Everyone deserves a mention, but I’ll settle, in brief, for Sean Maher’s darkly brooding antagonist Don John (a far cry from scowling Keanu in Branagh’s 1993 adap) and Nathan Fillion and Tom Lenks double act as a pair of astonishingly incompetent security guards playing at CSI: Messina (sunglasses and all). This is, in many forms, a very funny film.
Shakespeare’s comedies notoriously only ever end one way and Much Ado is no exception, but here the contrivances work somehow, including the tricky masquerade ball. Much Ado is certainly the best Shakespeare comedy I have seen on film and suggests Mr. Whedon could have a verdant career at the Old Vic if the whole Marvel Universe thing falls through.
Prickly and yet tender, Much Ado is a stylish, sophisticated balance of light and dark that deftly manages every aspect of one of Shakespeare’s lesser works. That it’s not a perfect five stars says more about Mr. Shakespeare in this instance than it does about the man behind Buffy and Firefly. Highly, highly recommended.