Review: Joss Whedon’s ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ is light and funny modern spin on the Bard

Joss Whedon is having one of those years that most filmmakers only dream of having, and the real winner is the audience.

First, the film that he co-wrote and produced, “Cabin In The Woods,” was finally released after it sat on a shelf for two years because of financial problems at MGM, and it would have been easy for that film to have gotten permanently lost.  instead, it was met with open arms by genre fans, and it seems like it is well on its way to its rightful place as a cult classic.  Then “The Avengers” conquered the summer and finally gave him a monster box-office hit he can call his own, an important step if he’s going to have an sort of career longevity working on the bigscreen.  And now, finally, we’ve got “Much Ado About Nothing,” a micro-budget personal take on Shakespeare’s play, cast largely with actors who will seem very familiar to people already fans of Whedon’s work.

The play is one of the lightest of Shakespeare’s work, and this version is no exception, although the decision to shoot in black and white and a lovely, wordless opening scene both add just a hint of melancholy to the overall mood of the picture.  The film was shot in and around what appears to be Whedon’s actual house, and while the clothing and the setting are all modern, the language is pure Shakespeare.  It is just after the wars have ended, and Don Pedro (Reed Diamond) is returning with his faithful men Benedick (Alexis Denisof) and Claudio (Fran Kranz) by his side.  This delights Count Leonato (Clark Gregg) and his daughter Hero (Jillian Morgese), since she harbors feelings for Claudio, but Beatrice (Amy Acker) is less sure how she feels.  She uses cutting wit to keep all suitors at arm’s length, and she reserves her most caustic comments for Benedick, who she has some history with.  She is resolute in her statements that she never wants a husband, just as he is adamant that he has no interest in ever taking a wife.  Of course, those attitudes put them on a romantic collision course, but that is just one small part of the overall tapestry of love, lies, and laughter that spin out over the course of what appears to be a remarkably drunken week of revelry.

The cast takes great delight in the text, and Whedon’s obvious love for the cast is reflected in the way he allows them room to play.  There’s nothing particularly flashy about how it’s shot.  Jay Hunter’s black and white photography is lovely and low-fi, and it feels captured rather than overly-stylized, like they were basically running to keep up with this production in full swing.  I’ve been a fan of Whedon’s work since “Buffy,” and it’s great seeing Denisof and Acker anchor a cast like this and stretch in a way we haven’t seen before.  They both shine in their roles, and it makes me wonder why Whedon has to be the one giving them such good parts.  Shouldn’t everyone else have caught on by this point?  Part of the fun for Whedon’s fans will be spotting everyone who shows up, like Ashley Johnson who was the waitress who Captain America saved in “The Avengers” or Fran Kranz from “Cabin In The Woods” and “Dollhouse” or Tom Lenk, always so funny as Andrew on “Buffy.”  Nathan Fillion’s turn as Dogberry is hilarious, and Sean Maher, another “Firefly” vet, gives good evil in his brief appearance as Don John.  

But if you’re not familiar with Whedon’s other work, the film works simply as a lovely adult piffle, a piece of Shakespeare-flavored candy.  The text is, of course, streamlined, and in the edits, Whedon has removed anything that might be considered too dark.  He preserves the brutal emotional turn of the scuttled wedding between Claudio and Hero, but he speeds up the happy ending, which is a good thing.  There’s joy bubbling under everything, and the film is at its best when it lets that joy out, when it feels like a celebration of the potential of love, and I think of all the productions I’ve seen, this might be the one that best sells Benedick’s line, “Get thee a wife,” since the film genuinely seems to believe that love and marriage are the answer.

The modern setting helps get Shakespeare newbies over any hurdle that the language might present, but I always feel like the real key to that is the actors themselves.  If they are able to make it feel natural, then the meaning comes through even if an audience has a hard time with the occasional turn of the phrase.  Here, everyone is able to find a very simple, naturalistic style and rhythm, and it feels like they are all incredibly comfortable with the words.  Whedon’s love of language comes through in his own writing, so it should be no surprise that he digs in with such zeal here, or that he is able to clearly communicate what it is that Shakespeare wants us to take away from this romp.

Right now, there is no distributor in place, but I would imagine someone will see the potential inherent to what is, after all, a very tiny movie loaded with familiar names and faces.  I’m sure you’ll have the chance to see the film at some point in the near future, and I’m delighted that something that sounds like a personal experiment yielded such rich and simple pleasures.