Much Ado About Nothing (Joss Whedon, 2012)
Joss Whedon, the film director (Serenity, The Avengers) and creator of many television shows (“Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Firefly,” “Angel“), has talked at length about why he needed to shoot Much Ado About Nothing between the wrapping of principal photography on The Avengers and the start of its post-production. That film’s scale was so overwhelming that he felt compelled to ground himself in a very different kind of creative process before proceeding with the editing. For a long time, Whedon, a self-proclaimed workaholic, had been in the habit of gathering, at his home, actors from his TV shows to rehearse and stage Shakespeare plays. He felt it relaxed him. And so, trying to relax after the madness of The Avengers shoot, he gathered most of his usual core group of Shakespeare performers for a two-week production of Much Ado About Nothing at his home in Los Angeles. The result? The movie I just watched last night. Is it a great film? No. Is it something fun and worth watching? Absolutely.
The only other version of the play I had ever seen was Kenneth Branagh’s 1993 version, which I found delightful. Both Branagh and Emma Thompson are masterful performers of Shakespeare, and are always able to take the Elizabethan verse and make the meaning in it clear. It sounds like speech (beautiful speech), emerging from their extremely capable and trained mouths and throats, rather than like memorized lines of a barely understood 16th/17th century poetic dialect. Not all modern actors pull this off. They either go too far in the direction of reverence to the text (see Laurence Olivier’s 1948 Hamlet), or end up completely out of their depth, clearly lost in the language (see Michael Almereyda’s 2000 Hamlet). Not so Branagh and the actors with whom he works. They make Shakespeare live (see also his own 1996 Hamlet, as well as his debut feature, Henry V). All of this is to say that, for me, Branagh’s Much Ado About Nothing is a tough act to follow.
To Whedon’s credit, I don’t think he cares. He’s following no one’s act but his own. He made this film to recharge his creative batteries, then set some clear limitations on his project and worked within them. The movie is all in modern dress (though still in verse), and, as previously mentioned, was filmed in his actual house. No one speaks in a British accent, but though the setting is clearly 21st-century America (iPhones, stereos, cars, etc.), the characters remain titled Italian and Spanish nobility. So right away we are asked to suspend our disbelief and just get on board for the ride. Since the play itself is so much fun, and everyone seems to be having so much fun making it, the viewers who are willing to take that ride will have a terrific time. To those who either like their Shakespeare more pure – who object to alterations by claiming, as Claudio might, “O, what men dare do! what men may do! what men daily do, not knowing what they do!” – or, alternately, who don’t like hearing people speak in iambic pentameter – who, like Benedick, might say, “I was not born under a rhyming planet” – the film may be challenging. To which one can only reply, as does a messenger to Beatrice, “The gentleman [Whedon] is not in your books.”
There are two basic story lines in Much Ado About Nothing. First we have the young lovers Claudio (Fran Kranz) and Hero (Jillian Morgese). Hero is the daughter of Leonato (Clark Gregg), a local official. Claudio is a favored young officer of a prince, Don Pedro (Reed Diamond). The older folk are in favor of the love match, and a wedding is arranged. The second – and more interesting – story concerns Benedick (Alexis Denisof) and Beatrice (Amy Acker), two sharp-witted romantic adversaries who have some history together, yet now claim to hate each other. Except to each other, Benedick and Beatrice are pleasant to all, and much loved by all. Their friends hatch a plot to bring these two together, with a plan to have them wed on the same day as Claudio and Hero. Much fun is had at their expense, as a result. As Whedon has claimed, Much Ado About Nothing is the original template for all romantic comedies to come.
And so the two stories move forward pleasantly, until Don Pedro’s out-of-favor brother, Don John (Sean Maher), decides to interfere to break the alliance between the camps. He has one of his minions be seen engaging in sexual activity with Hero’s chambermaid (who has been convinced to wear one of her mistress’s outfits), and the resultant scandal makes Claudio cancel the wedding and Hero fall into a near-fatal swoon. The rest of the play/film revolves around the discovery of the nefarious Don John’s plot and the rehabilitation of Hero’s character. At the end – sorry, *plot spoiler”, in case you really had no idea how this would go – all is back on track, and the two weddings do, as planned, take place.
The movie was filmed to be projected in black & white (since it was shot digitally, I don’t write that it was “shot in black & white,” since it wasn’t), and that contributes to a simplicity of aesthetic that serves the story well. In addition, since Whedon’s house is in a suburban Los Angeles neighborhood, the grayscale shading helps to mask what would otherwise be a distracting array of modern colors. The actors are all quite fine – especially Denisof and Acker – with the notable exception of Riki Lindhome, as Conrade, one of Don John’s minions (his lover, actually). She was almost bad enough to kick me out of the movie.
A good time is had by all, but there is one aspect of this modern-dress version of the play that bothers me. Whedon has made adjustments to the text, and has consciously set the story in our contemporary world. Why, then, does he keep the element of Hero’s virginity/lack thereof as a central plot point? As much as I thought Claudio was a heel for throwing Hero away – and she a fool for eventually taking him back – when I saw him in a period-appropriate production, in Whedon’s movie the obsession with Hero’s behavior doesn’t quite work. And what really doesn’t work is the idea that she would want to have anything to do with Claudio once her reputation is restored. Indeed, at that moment, for me, “”The gentleman [Whedon] is not in [my] books.”
That aside, I can recommend the film. “In time the savage bull doth bear the yoke.”