As I promised in my last post, here is my review of Joss Whedon’s film Much Ado About Nothing. (And if you like movies at all but haven’t seen my last post you should really check it out.) I’ve done reviews of most everything Whedon has had a hand in, so if you want to reference those you can find my parent post for them here.
Back in late 2011 or early 2012 there was a surprise announcement that Joss Whedon had adapted and already completed filming Shakespeare’s play Much Ado About Nothing – all while in the midst of post-production on the biggest film in
The Avengers (2012). Reactions ran the gamut from “are you serious?” to “that’s
Joss Whedon”. The film was held back for
a while, making its debut at some festivals, and was finally released to the
public in the summer of 2013. Despite
his success with The Avengers, movie theaters wanted nothing to do with a
Shakespeare adaptation that had no big name stars in it. It played the arthouse circuit then was
released to DVD/BD where I finally got a chance to see it. I enjoyed myself. I had also seen the 1993 Branagh version way
back in the day and comparisons between the two are impossible to ignore. I will include some of those thoughts in this
First things first, how the heck did this movie come to be? For many years Whedon had gathered members of his TV show casts at his home on weekends to sing songs, do parts of musicals, or read and put on Shakespeare’s plays. His wife Kai Cole even designed their current home with the idea of having locations where these weekend plays could be performed. When she and Joss Whedon were planning their 20th anniversary she told him that they should take the time and money they were going to spend on a trip and instead do Much Ado About Nothing – something that had been a passion of Whedon’s for quite some time. He bit the bullet and did this, calling in “the Whedon repertory players” to fill out most of the cast. As they all say when talking about this, “When Joss Whedon calls you immediately say ‘yes’, even before you know what it’s about.” Anyone who has watched Whedon’s TV shows or movies will recognize most of the cast. Anyone who has not may well wonder why they have never seen them before.
For those folks who are not familiar with the play it concerns a powerful man named Leonato (Clark Gregg – The Avengers) who is hosting a gathering for Don Pedro (Reed Diamond – Dollhouse), a Lord. In his home Leonato has a daughter named Hero (newcomer Jillian Morgese) and her cousin Beatrice (Amy Acker – Angel, Dollhouse, The Cabin in the Woods), not to mention a number of servants, among them Margaret (Ashley Johnson – The Avengers). Don Pedro brings with him a large group. They include his estranged brother Don John (Sean Maher – Firefly, Serenity), Don John’s lover Conrade (Riki Lindholme) and right hand man Borachio (Spencer Treat Clark), and Leonato’s good friends Claudio (Fran Kranz – Dollhouse, The Cabin in the Woods) and Benedick (Alexis Denisof – Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Dollhouse). In the neighborhood are Constable Dogberry (Nathan Fillion – Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly, Serenity, Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog) and his deputy Verges (Tom Lenk – Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, The Cabin in the Woods)
Shakespeare wrote this mostly as a comedy, although it has some dramatic elements in it. Beatrice and Benedick have a history of verbally sparring with each other, trading witty insults, and generally loathing each other…so of course Leonato and Don Pedro hatch a plan to make the two admit they love each other. The humor is the broadest here. Meanwhile Claudio and Hero have immediately fallen in love with each other and wish to be married. Complicating both of these things is Don John, who walks around practically twirling a non-existent moustache and generally causing problems for anyone who might be happy. This is where the drama comes in, especially in the Claudio/Hero relationship. Constable Dogberry catches on to part of Don John’s havoc and also gets involved. More humor comes from this.
Whedon did a few interesting things with this film, chief of which is he set it in modern times and he shot it in black and white. He still kept all of the original dialogue, though, except for one derogatory line about Jews. These things led to what are far and away the largest number of complaints about it on the IMDB message boards – “Everyone talks really weird.” (that’s a direct quote) and “Why does it have to be in black and white? That sucks.” (another direct quote). I’m guessing most of the people leaving these comments have never encountered either a Shakespeare adaptation or a black and white film before.
Sharp eyes might have picked up another change I described above. Whedon switched the gender of Conrade because he felt the scenes between him/her and Don John would be more interesting if it was between lovers. The other change Whedon made, although he says it is based on a “biblical interpretation” of a Shakespeare line where Beatrice and Benedick say they “knew each other of old”, is to make them have a sexual history with each other. The film opens with Benedick leaving Beatrice’s room after a one night stand. The implication is that they have hooked up from time to time, but neither will admit to any emotional connection. In a way this actually weakened the Beatrice/Benedick part of the story for me. It’s not for any moral reasons, but knowing that they were already sexual partners, then it is not that big a leap for them to be emotional lovers. Having them hate each other and exchanging only verbal insults makes the jump to admitting they love each other to be much more satisfying. In this way, the 1993 Branagh version did a better job with the romance.
In most other respects, though, I felt the Whedon version did a better job. One thing that was definitely better was the drama. In Branagh’s version Don John is not really that menacing and there’s never really a sense that anything might go wrong. In Whedon’s, the tragedy of what happens to Hero is palpable. And Amy Acker nailed the “Oh that I were a man” scene where she wants to get revenge on those that have harmed Hero. Clark Gregg is also very good in a scene where he is really horrible to Hero, yet you can tell it is killing him inside.
I felt the comedy was also better in this newer version. Both Denisof and Acker are gifted physical comedians and this is put to good use during the scenes where they are “accidentally overhearing” their friends talk about how each of them has confessed their secret love for the other. In addition, Fillion and Lenk are comic geniuses in all their scenes together. It’s shot as almost a parody of 1970s cop shows, complete with Lenk sporting a 1970s ‘stache.
Finally, Whedon’s film has a fantastic version of the song Sigh No More from the play. He wrote the music for it, his brother Jed polished it, and Jed’s wife Maurissa Tancharoen sings it. It’s a jazzy little number and it’s perfect for the party scene at Leonato’s. I had it running through my head afterwards. Jed, Maurissa, and Joss’ wife Kai Cole make a cameo during the party where we see Maurissa singing it. In fact, if you are familiar with the faces of other behind the camera folks that are friends or relatives of Joss then you will spy a number of familiar faces among the extras at the party.
If you have not watched any of Joss Whedon’s shows then there will not be any familiar faces in the cast. Clark Gregg, who has played Agent Coulson in the Marvel superhero movies, is probably the most recognizable face right now to the general public. You will recognize Nathan Fillion if you are a fan of the TV show Castle. Other than that the rest of the cast are character actors and supporting players in many things. They do a good job with their performances, though. It doesn’t take a 20 million dollar per film actor like Denzel Washington in the 1993 version to give you a good performance; they just give you recognition at the box office. And Joss shot it in only 12 days entirely in and around his own home. (I’d love to own this house, by the way.) In his commentary track he does mention a couple things he would have done if he had had more time, but by and large he’s happy with the result.
If you are a fan of Joss Whedon then definitely check this out. If you’ve never heard of him, but like the Shakespeare play, then I think you’ll find Whedon’s interpretation interesting. For everyone else, unless you hate it when “people talk really weird” then I highly recommend you see this film.
Chip’s Rating: 4 out of 5 stars