Much Ado About Nothing, Review

The best home movie ever, Joss Whedon's take on Shakespeare plays like a long champagne drenched weekend at his house!

Quite the contrary to its title, William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing has always had a lot going on. While never my favorite work from the Bard, there is a simple glow about the sparkling wit jabbed between Benedick and Beatrice. Also, unlike his even earlier comedic success A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Much Ado relies none on supernatural deus ex machinas or mystical explanations for sight gags (like a man named Bottom being turned into a literal jackass). No, Much Ado will always be the pater familias of love stories involving couples at odds due to misdirection, miscommunication and a harmless misunderstanding. In short, it was the world’s first romcom. This is likely the reason that the best film adaptation of a Shakespearian play to date remains Kenneth Branagh’s 1993 iteration of the same name. It may not be the most ambitious attempt of putting Shakespeare on the screen and seems quite lightweight even compared to Branagh’s other takes on Bard, including Henry V (1989) and Hamlet (1996), yet there is something so cinematically pleasing about this tale. It has two couples who are brought together and torn apart by misunderstandings worthy of a 1970s sitcom starring John Ritter. It features colorful side characters making fools of themselves, as well as a dastardly villain and plenty of double entendres to go around. Skainsmate, it even has its own catchy pop song to leave audiences humming well after the final bow! For years, Much Ado was practically begging to be properly brought to the medium that has milked its formula for nearly a century. Branagh did just that in his grandly broad Renaissance epic. Twenty years ago. As time passes, Shakespeare’s timeless poetry inevitably finds new ways to express itself. Forever a piece of theatre, Much Ado About Nothing is meant to be reinterpreted and rediscovered a thousand different ways every generation. And a few forgotten TV movies aside, Joss Whedon has done just that with his very contemporary approach. Shot over 12 days in October 2011, Whedon’s take on the material feels more like a long weekend of wild cocktail parties and champagne-drenched nights than a romantic farce on a cinemascope scale. Indeed, produced during downtime between shooting and editing The Avengers, Much Ado makes for an exercise in palette cleansing from blockbuster filmmaking and costumed superheroes. Everything is the opposite. No big explosions, no CGI, not even color. The use of black and white photography is almost a backlash to a world dominated by an 8-foot tall green giant. A last gasp of subtlety and adulthood before Marvel claimed his soul for much of this decade.
 Much Ado About Nothing of the 2013 vintage is a lovely evening with Whedon and friends. He let’s us into his home (it was shot in his Santa Monica house), pours us the visual equivalent of a little bubbly and then sits us down for a parade of old buddies (I will try to point them all out) masquerading in Elizabethan garb. It’s sublime. In its simplest terms, Much Ado is about two extreme opposites attracting. Actually, they are not opposite at all, but they make a damned show of arguing to the contrary. On one side there is Senor Benedick (Alexis Denisof of Angel), a proudly boastful companion to a prince, who disdains women that are beneath him. Which is all of them. In the other corner is Beatrice (Amy Acker of Angel and Dollhouse), the stubborn, headstrong niece of the Governor of Messina; one who takes joy in her independence and maidenhood. When Benedick’s Don Pedro (Reed Diamond of Dollhouse) comes to stay the week with Beatrice’s Uncle Leonato (Clark Gregg of The Avengers) witty banter and blithe insults ensue. Fortunately, they are aided by the young love between the prince’s protégé, Claudio (Fran Kranz of Dollhouse and Cabin in the Woods) and Leonato’s daughter, Hero (Jillian Morgese of The Avengers). Once a few early misjudgments are cleared up, Claudio and Hero are headed to the chapel after only a day together while also scheming with their friends to ensnare the sniping leads into a romantic trap worthy of Cupid. All is going well until Don Pedro’s despicable half-brother, Don John (Sean Maher of Firefly), undertakes a nasty plot to separate the two young lovers forever. It will also endanger the newly smitten Benedick and Beatrice as loyalties are tested.
 Whedon smoothly transports this universal story from the fair vineyards of Renaissance Italy to the shiny mansions of Southern California. While there are no wine grapes onscreen, their true fruit, along with every other imaginable alcoholic beverage, flow quite freely from scene to scene. Looking back, I am unsure if there is a single sequence where there is not an open bottle of wine, vodka or Scotch lying in the background or in a principal’s hand. Set around a series of parties, there are plenty of open bars to be found. Even set-pieces rejiggered to the groggy morning after begin with a breakfast of champagne. Considering how drunk these rich and frivolous people are, is it any wonder they all keep making the same stupid mistake again and again? The elegant black and white digital photography gives the picture a sleek, glossy look as it casually unravels its yarn, fully aware that we know where the heaping threads lay. The movie wants the audience to settle in for a rhythmic rift on an old favorite where the beauty rests in the contours and flourishes hidden within. One of the strangest of these modern shifts, something far more noticeable than the use of cars as “horses” or guns as “swords,” is the introduction of the sexual. Most overtly, the adaptation turns Don John’s accomplice, Conrade, into a dangerous blonde played by Riki Lindhome. This causes a monologue of Don John spilling his motivations to the sidekick to become a kinky kind of foreplay. The play Much Ado About Nothing always dealt with the sensual, but only in so far as to being the subject under the table. Virginal virtue was highly valued in Renaissance Italy (at least according to the much stiffer Brits of Shakespeare’s world) and John the Bastard’s successful attempt to besmirch the fair Hero’s name as a hedonistic nymph destroys a perfectly good wedding ceremony, leading to Leonato nearly murdering his own daughter. And while that is all still there (though self-proclaimed feminist Whedon clearly turns down the level of cruelty in Hero’s shaming), it is treated as a more modern reaction. You can have sex, but we better not hear about it! The movie even shockingly opens on this note when it is revealed that Benedick and Beatrice’s past clashes stem from a one-night stand where the noble sir left his ladylove passed out in the bed. The severity of the Catholic values is ancient Italian. The blatant hypocrisy is modern American. Speaking of American, Whedon’s cast of friends disproves the oft-cited snobbery held against we yanks for doing Shakespeare. Acker, always a supporting player in previous Whedon productions, gets to step into the center stage for a role that feels like it was written for her. Whedon finally gives her the spotlight and she devours it with a superb Beatrice who is equal parts pained rose and bloodthirsty thorn. Whoever she shares the screen with has to worry about staying in the frame when this maiden’s wit gets going.
 Similarly, Gregg and Reed bring a very laidback and refreshing take to the patriarchs overlooking the verbal carnage. Gregg’s Leonato sounds like a governor who may have experimented a little too much in his early days before public life and is always ready to go back no matter how nice he wears a suit. Reed also surprises as a rather older and more introspective version of Don Pedro than I am used to. His nurturing scenes with Kranz’s affectively callow Claudio or a playful Beatrice make him more the mentor than usual. Firefly fans can also rejoice at the performances of Mather and Nathan Fillion. The former brings back an underhanded hollowness to a role that likely served as the prototype of Iago’s cold villainy. John lives up to his fatherless namesake with his calculating plans of vengeance on those without slight. Meanwhile, Fillion hams it up to the sky as Dogberry, the dumbest constable ever created. For a character who is hardly in the movie, Fillion easily guarantees audiences will remember his playful smirk and effeminate slappy fight with Conrade after she calls him an ass.