Joss Whedon’s right when he says “There’s never no reason to see a production of Much Ado”. Shakespeare’s boisterous genre-defining play is witty, truthful, and laid the foundation for every ‘battling lovers’ romantic comedy to follow. On stage or screen, it’s a sweet treat sharpened by its unflattering portrait of lovers pathetic and proud. The question is then, what reason is there to see Joss Whedon’s production of Much Ado?
It’s funny, for one. Sexy for another. Whedon’s micro-budget, black and white retelling whips through the slightly abridged text like a swift-flowing river. It’s a light, fun, party production that hits all of the comic notes and most of the romantic ones.
We follow a quartet of lovers, ostensible leads Claudio and Hero (Fran Kranz and Jillian Morgese), and the gobby, witty couple we’re actually rooting for: Benedick and Beatrice (Alexis Denisof and Amy Acker) on their circuitous route to the altar. There’s also a villainous plot to foil, some lesson-teaching subterfuge, and a spot of gentler trickery by the play’s “only love gods”.
If you sit down as a fan of Whedon’s repertory cast, the film offers nothing but joy. If not, you’ll likely have a few new favourites by the end (not least Nathan Fillion and Tom Lenk as pompous ass Dogberry and sidekick Verges). Denisof is endearing as clownish confirmed bachelor Benedick, but the stand-out performance – as it should be in any Much Ado – is Amy Acker’s Beatrice, who’s just as illuminating an on-screen presence whether she’s in love or spitting teeth about her stymied gender.
Filmed in Whedon’s Santa Monica home, this version of Much Ado reimagines Leonato’s bucolic Messina estate as a swish Kennedy Compound where everyone is beautiful, powerful, and drunk. The open-plan design is a boon for the plot’s eavesdropping and chicanery, and the garden host to hip pool parties where the guests all drink like fish and babble like brooks. The drinking, incidentally, is a stroke of inspiration. If you’ve ever been irked by a character’s volubility, readiness to duel, or over-willing suspension of disbelief in a Shakespearean comedy, then the gallons of expensive booze being sunk here provide the perfect explanation for it all. It’s no wonder this lot never shuts up.
The production’s intimacy of location lends Much Ado a wrap party feel. That’s what makes it a treat for lovers of the Whedonverse, much of whose fandom is about belonging to the writer/director’s gang of seductively clever, funny characters and actors.
While Much Ado‘s backbone is the “kind of merry war” enacted between Beatrice and Benedick, it’s not just a sharp-tongued romance, but also a story with a bitter shard at its centre. It’s here the elegant black and white does its job as Whedon’s film leans into the darkness by borrowing stylistically from forties noir.
Dark moments aside, the film still plays as the archetypal romantic comedy. Bookended by a flippant attitude to love, from the title to the shoulder-shrugging “man is a giddy thing” conclusion, Whedon leaves us in no doubt that by the time the credits roll, his wooing foursome are compulsively, sexily head over heels with one another.
So then, reasons to watch this production of Much Ado? Comedy, wit, romance, beauty… In short, all the reasons there ever have been to watch a lovingly made, smart version of this story, just now with added geek appeal.
Much Ado About Nothing is released in the UK on Friday the 14th of June. Read our interview about the film with Joss Whedon, here.
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