Joss Whedon, teller of vampire tales, and . . . William Shakespeare? An unlikely duo, perhaps. And yet, this summer, the combination proves magical.
Whedon is probably best known as the writer/executive producer of the cult classic (and critically acclaimed) TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer. But a quick visit to Whedon’s IMDb.com page reveals one of the industry’s most eclectic lists of credits. They range rom popular TV series, like Buffy and Angel, to Toy Story to The Cabin in the Woods to the Web’s Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. (Versatility, thy name is Whedon.) And, lest you wonder whether this wunderkind has spread himself a bit thin, he’s proven that what he touches often turns to gold. He wrote and directed last summer’s Marvel’s The Avengers, the fastest movie to break $1 billion at the box office and the third-highest grossing film in history. Phew!
So what does the mighty Whedon do in his time off? He invites a couple of dozen friends over, and in less than a fortnight turns out the sleekest, smartest film adaptation of William Shakespeare I have ever seen.
Much Ado About Nothing is one of the Bard’s most accessible comedies. It is, of course, about love and lovers: two sets, one that is brought together through trickery and one that is almost kept apart by it. And, as we would expect, “all’s well that ends well.”
The story takes place in Messina, where nobleman Leonato lives with his innocent daughter Hero and quick-witted niece Beatrice. A recent war being over, Leonato welcomes Don Pedro and his men to stay and revel. Among the men is dreamy, romantic Claudio, who instantly falls for Hero, and clever, sharp-tongued Benedick, who has some history with Beatrice. Both Beatrice and Benedick swear they will never marry, so the audience (now, as in Shakespeare’s time) knows that they will soon be united. The drama (or, to refer back to the title, the “much ado”) occurs when Don Pedro’s evil bastard brother Don John tricks Claudio into believing he has been cuckolded on the eve of his wedding. In a more benevolent plot, Leonato and Don Pedro take it upon themselves to bring Benedick and Beatrice together.
And, as they say in Hollywood, mayhem ensues.
Any new version of Much Ado About Nothing is fated to be compared with the celebrated 1993 Kenneth Branagh/Emma Thompson movie. Despite an earlier infatuation with that film, I confess I much prefer this new one. It feels fresher. It’s having more fun. And, while the two leads of that earlier movie were impeccable, it also had a handful of movie stars who were clearly not in their element: Denzel Washington and Keanu Reeves, for example.
Meanwhile, this latest (and, I’d argue, greatest) Much Ado features an ensemble of television actors, most of whom have worked in other Whedon vehicles. Part of the fun is spotting familiar faces and matching them to each of the series. Every actor is ideally cast, and it certainly helps that they speak the Bard’s speech beautifully. I kept waiting for a missed note, and—happily—it never came.
Alexis Denisof (familiar to TV viewers from Buffy, Angel, and the current How I Met Your Mother) is a handsome Benedick. He is at times arrogant, at times a buffoon, at times an arrogant buffoon. Denisof adds a physicality to the role that is a joy to watch. As he overhears the other men speak of Beatrice’s (fabricated) love for him, we’re treated to a sequence of pratfalls. He literally falls over himself to hear more.
Denisof is well-matched (if not a touch overshadowed) by Amy Acker as Beatrice. She has been gifted with some of the play’s best lines by Mr. Shakespeare—and some of the movie’s funniest business by Mr. Whedon. But she makes all of it her own. In a scene that parallels the one I’ve just described, Beatrice eagerly listens to her sister and a servant describe Benedick’s (manufactured) infatuation. She falls down a flight of stairs, pops back up and contorts herself under a kitchen counter as she hangs on every word.
Their scenes together are perfectly timed verbal jousts. The two are clearly equals and equally adept at wordplay. If they are to meet in the middle (and we know they will), there won’t be any “taming” of one by the other. And, if the scenario feels deliciously familiar, you can thank Beatrice and Benedick for inspiring every romantic comedy couple for the past 400 years.
Beatrice: I wonder that you will still be talking, Signior Benedick. Nobody marks you.
Benedick: What, my dear Lady Disdain. Are you yet living?
Beatrice: Is’t possible Disdain should die whilst she hath such meet food to feed it as Signior Benedick?
We know that Benedick’s right when he observes, “Thou and I are too wise to woo peaceably.”
Acker and Denisof are joined by a thoroughly wonderful troupe of actors. (There’s not a piece of dead wood in the bunch!) Of note are Clark Gregg as Leonato and Reed Diamond as Don Pedro, Sean Maher as the cunning Don John, and, in a bit of Whedon gender-bending, Riki Lindhome as his henchman (here, more of a moll). The younger lovers, appropriately dewy-eyed and idealistic, are played by relative newcomer Jillian Morgese (who was an extra in The Avengers) and Fran Kranz. They are effectively the romantic befores to Beatrice and Benedick’s jaded afters.
While the entire cast is first-rate (and the movie really does feel like a successful ensemble piece), I’m obligated to applaud Nathan Fillion (another Whedon regular) for his turn as Dogberry the constable. While Michael Keaton won praise for the role in the Branagh version, his performance was insanely manic (imagine Beetlejuice reading Shakespeare). Fillion underplays the part, using the flat, silky tone of a film noir detective, even as he confidently encourages his men to “Be vigitant” and “Comprehend all vagrom men.”
The movie was shot at Whedon’s own Santa Monica home and it’s presented in black and white, harking back to the madcap comedies of thirties Hollywood. The party scenes include aerial performers, masks, a hot tub, and an endless river of booze. There are wry contemporary nods as well: Dogberry’s motley crew uses modern surveillance equipment; the soldiers are put up in children’s bedrooms complete with stuffed animals (can’t say that I remember a Shakespearean scene played out in front of a Barbie Dreamhouse before). Whedon also includes some gentle comments on the dated if beloved material he’s working with. The adept actors are allowed to subtly comment on some of the truly tongue-twisting lines (and unbelievable plot contrivances). Even a touch of Shakespearean racism is exposed in a way that makes it palatable. When Claudio, believing Hero has died because of his false accusations, agrees to marry another woman to atone, he asserts that he will even “were she an Ethiope.” Whedon subtly directs the camera to a black wedding guest, effectively evolving outrage into a humorous observation. That was then, this is now.
With all of the movie’s strengths, and there are so many, the highlight for me is Beatrice. Despite the pretty nasty business regarding Hero’s virginity or alleged lack thereof, Much Ado About Nothing is a play that feminists can embrace. Beatrice is as wise and strong a character as any man. I’m not surprised that Whedon chose Much Ado as his first (and I hope not last) Shakespeare project. After all, he’s the same man who convinced us all that a high school cheerleader could save the world from vampires. He seems to take great pleasure in messing with gender stereotypes.
Years ago, an interviewer asked, “Why do you write these strong female characters?”
Whedon’s response? “Because you’re still asking me that question.”
In a movie season filled with superheroes, warring zombies, and exploding White Houses, it’s nice to find a smart, strong woman to root for. Much Ado About Nothing is something pretty special indeed.
Get thee to a cinema.