The idea of Joss Whedon directing Shakespeare is an intriguing one, and I was looking forward to the release of Much Ado About Nothing with great anticipation. I wasn’t disappointed! For a person familiar with his work, it was a delight to see a cast so densely populated with Whedon collaborators, but this movie has more to it than that.
This version arises from a tradition of Shakespeare reading parties at Whedon’s home, and in many ways, it is a cinematic instantiation of that tradition. Some modern settings of Shakespeare tend to be vague in their modernity, or to use modernity as a theme in their setting to make a point (or worse, create a certain hybrid modern/retro atmosphere found nowhere outside the world of high theatre and opera). Much Ado belongs to a different tradition of production which deeply entrenches itself in a particular modern setting, and lets Shakespeare speak to that setting on its own merit. It is filmed at Whedon’s home, which is permeated with the air of the more elegant SoCal elite. This renders the movie concrete where sometimes Shakespeare (even, in the wrong hands, the comedies) can seem abstract. It was shot in two weeks, which, together with the rootedness of its particular home setting, doubtless contributed to the acting style. Whedon’s ensemble delivers Shakespeare with an admirably natural air, to the point that you almost forget you are watching Shakespeare; the Bard melts away into a fizzy summer at a California luxury home.
The naturalness of the production and delivery contrasts sharply with the glamor of the great party scene (particularly enhanced by a pair of phenomenal trapeze artists). This contrast does not jar, but enhances the character of both the party and the normal interactions between the characters. Both are part of one cultural world: that of California, so effectively expressed by the Rufus Wainwright lyric, “California, you’re such a wonder that I think I’ll stay in bed.” A wealth of experience to the plundered and a laidback languor which inhibits the plundering are both very much parts of the California climate, and both notes are hit effectively here.
One directing choice, however, does produce more dissonance: filming in black and white adds an air of pretention, more than scaffolding for the creation of a coherent vision. But even this works in the scenes with Dogberry (played by Nathan Fillion; Firefly, Dr. Horrible) and his fellow policemen. The buffoonery of Shakespeare’s conastublary is enhanced here, by the characters’ preening affectation of the tropes of the noir film cop. Fillion’s Dogberry and Tom Lenk’s (Buffy, Angel, Cabin) Verges are a delightfully comic portrayal of an alpha male worried to preserve his status, and a beta worrying at its edges. In Dogberry, Shakespeare satirizies the inept affectation of an unnaturally elevated discourse (most memorably with the line, “Be vigitant, I beseech you!”). The rivalry between Dogberry and Verges adds a satire of self-important bravado, which reads in this production as a satirization of machismo. The feyness lurking under the surface of Lenk’s perforamance and the careful swagger of Fillion’s masculinity produce a comical chemistry which highlights this satirical element; it is further emphasized by a few moments of excellent physical comedy.
Of course, the movie really belongs to the lovers. Alexis Denisof (Buffy, Angel, Dollhouse) portrays a brash amd smirking Benedick, and makes the transition from confident disdainer of marriage to lovestruck suitor with grace. Fran Kranz (Dollhouse, Cabin) effectively portrays a clueless Claudio. However, I did wonder whether his talents might have been better put to use if the roles were reversed; the character of Benedick is tingied with a disdain for social structures and the air of an entertainer, and Kranz portrayed both traits brilliantly in Cabin. Meanwhile, Benedick’s Beatrice is played by Amy Acker (Angel, Dollhouse, Cabin) with a spunk and fire which does real justice to the subversive nature of her character, and a feminine charm which makes her transition to fiancée as believable as Benedick’s transition to suitor. But there is iron under her pixie features, and it remains clear who wears the pants in the relationship. Jillian Morgese’s Hero portrays a more conventionally feminine lover to Claudio, whose drama primarily revolves around her sexual purity being impugned. Her more old-school brand of femininity may explain why Whedon (whose feminism is, of course, well noted) cast an actor he has hardly ever worked with before in this role. Still, for what the role is, Morgese portrays it admirably.
To summarize: the setting, direction, and acting in Whedon’s Much Ado combine to make a production of Shakespearean comedy more enjoyable, more accessible, and more broadly relatable than any we are likely to see for some time. It’s a fun and frothy summer piece, well worth seeing. 4 out of 5 stars.