Directed by: Joss Whedon.
Written by: Joss Whedon based on the play by William Shakespeare.
Starring: Amy Acker (Beatrice), Alexis Denisof (Benedick), Nathan Fillion (Dogberry), Clark Gregg (Leonato), Reed Diamond (Don Pedro), Fran Kranz (Claudio), Jillian Morgese (Hero), Sean Maher (Don John), Spencer Treat Clark (Borachio), Riki Lindhome (Conrade), Ashley Johnson (Margaret), Emma Bates (Ursula), Tom Lenk (Verges), Nick Kocher (First Watchman), Brian McElhaney (Second Watchman), Joshua Zar (Leonato's Aide), Paul Meston (Friar Francis).
Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing is a pleasant surprise. Whedon, the director best known for his genre TV work (Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Firefly, Dollhouse) and last year’s mega hit The Avengers, has crafted an effortless, utterly enjoyable modern day version of one of William Shakespeare’s best known comedies. Shot in black and white, over two weeks, for almost no money, with a cast culled from Whedon’s TV shows this Much Ado About Nothing manages the trick of setting a Shakespeare play in modern day America, while keeping the Shakespeare dialogue, and not make the whole thing look like a stunt.
This movie is set almost exclusively in the home of Leonato (Clark Gregg), a wealthy man in what looks to be a gated community. Don Pedro (Reed Diamond) shows up with his men – the love-struck Claudio (Fran Kranz) and affirmed bachelor Benedick (Alexis Benisof) in tow, along with his scheming brother Don John (Sean Maher). Claudio is in love with Leonato’s daughter Hero (Jillian Morgese), who Don Pedro agrees to woo in his name, and arrange the marriage with Leonato, while Benedick and Hero’s cousin Beatrice (Amy Acker) engage in a war of words about how much they hate each other – while of course, they love each other. And Don John wants to mess everything up with the help of his friends Borachio (Spencer Treat Clark) and Conrade (Riki Lindhome – inspiring casting, since Conrade is usually a man).
Whedon stages this all as a screwball comedy of the super-rich. Whatever these men do, and it’s never addressed, they’re obviously rich – they look they stepped out of the pages of GQ. All the actors are game – making the Shakespearean dialogue feel more natural given the surroundings than it probably should. Two central scenes – where first the men conspire to make Benedick think Beatrice is in love with him, and then the women do the same thing to Beatrice – are excellent examples of ridiculous physical comedy – complete with pratfalls that work far better than they should. Densiof and Acker are pretty much perfectly matched as the lovers who can’t stand each other, digging into their insults to each other. The best member of the cast however is, surprisingly, Nathan Fillion as Dogberry – the local buffoonish constable who uncovers the plot to shame Hero. Normally an over the top fool, Fillion nicely underplays Dogberry – and still gets many of the film’s biggest laughs – especially the way he obsesses over Conrade calling him an ass.
The problems with the movie, are the same I’ve always had with the play – essentially, why Hero still wants Claudio after he is tricked in believing she has been unfaithful, and goes out of his way to shame her in the most public and humiliating way possible. The scene where he does that is brilliantly handled by Kranz as Claudio, making the old standard of fidelity seem more modern than it should. But why then does he deserve a happy ending with Hero? And why does Hero still want him after what he did? These are probably questions better suited for Shakespeare than Whedon – although I suspect the answer would be the play is a comedy, so of course they end up together.
Adapting Shakespeare in a modern setting is a tricky proposition – one that doesn’t work out very well much of the time. But Whedon and his cast pull it off. The somehow make this play that is hundreds of years old feel fresh and new.