A 400-Year-Old Party Continues in Joss Whedon's 'Much Ado About Nothing'

This taut revision of Shakespeare strikes a charming balance between true modernization and screwball throwback, aided by the startlingly deep bench of actors the director's assembled over his career. Enjoy with a drink or two.

Much Ado About Nothing

Director: Joss Whedon
Cast: Amy Acker, Alexis Denisoff, Clark Gregg, Nathan Fillion, Reed Diamond, Fran Kranz, Sean Maher, Jillian Morgese
Distributor: Lions Gate
Studio: Bellwether Pictures
UK Release date: 2013-10-07
US Release date: 2013-10-08

Put enough talented artists in a room and something spectacular will happen. Given enough time, of course -- that’s the necessary rejoinder to such an idealistic notion. Even in the best work of Joss Whedon, though, nothing indicates that such a relaxed approach has been taken. Everything feels tightly choreographed and controlled, even when the grander design sags.

So the no-frills, great-actors-just-hanging-out-riffing-on-some-Shakespeare tone of his Much Ado About Nothing adaptation seems at first an ill fit for his strengths. But in ceding his role as writer (save for some choice edits to the Bard’s text that keep the action clipping along at a pace friendly to modern audiences and their living rooms), Whedon’s gift of collaboration come to the fore. He has assembled a game cast and set them loose upon fine material for which they have a ready enthusiasm and affection; would that other comedies met these minimum requirements.

One or two scenes fall into the theatrical pitfall of putting a bunch of characters in a room and having them pour drinks during monologues to keep the physical action flowing. Perhaps it’s Whedon’s wry joke to set such a scene just after dawn, as Clark Gregg’s Leonato wakes abruptly from a drunken stupor to grant his daughter’s hand in marriage and officiate a round of toasts almost without blinking.

The affordable handheld camerawork, in crisp black and white, distinguishes the film from other pictures attempting to match Shakespeare’s words with a similarly stylized (classical or otherwise) visual sensibility, yet save for a couple of standout scenes in which the reluctant lovers Benedick (Alexis Denisof) and Beatrix (Amy Acker) eavesdrop on fraudulent news of the other’s affections, there’s rarely room for the players to keep the action flowing. Most scenes play out in medium shot, with reactions to the dialogue largely limited to that awful polite laughter that so often occurs in Shakespeare stagings, as the characters momentarily recede and the actors, unsure of whether what they have just heard was a joke, emerge.

Not that a romantic comedy requires a pratfall to punctuate every scene, but it would help to allay the more haphazard elements -- which do not include the casting. Shall we talk about the actors? Gorgeous, yes, but all well-suited to their parts, Whedon has pulled from his usual suspects a crew of crafty performers, each with their own take on the material.

The biggest revelation, perhaps not to those who have watched him for years, is Nathan Fillion, the best-known Whedon collaborator in the cast relegated here to the script’s juiciest supporting role, that of the constable Dogberry. Remarkable what a simple wardrobe touch like a stuffed shirt can do to transform a classic leading man into a bumbling -- well, you know.

The tagline for the picture’s theatrical release read “Shakespeare Knew How to Throw a Party”, and the dominant trait of the adaptation is, indeed, fun. You get the sense that all players are enjoying themselves thoroughly. It’s a testament, once more, to the quality of the casting that the dramatic turns of the plot don’t entirely derail the momentum. Placing the cast’s best-known actors in supporting roles turns crucial in these later scenes, as the catastrophic wedding rests on Leonato’s ability to turn sober and wrathful on the head of a pin, and the dramatic denouement arrives courtesy of Fillion’s note-perfect Dogberry.

Whedon’s major revision to the material inserts a flashback during one of Beatrix’s monologues, taking what was a brief hint in Shakespeare’s text and flat-out showing the audience that she had been in love with Benedick before, and some falling out occurred. It’s a neat twist that gives the actors more credibility, particularly the unfamiliar Alexis Denisof (known mostly a voice actor, save for fans of Angel), by suggesting a deeper history beneath their familiar sparrings.

Many stagings of Shakespeare lack that sense of personal history. There’s even an example here in the romance between Claudio and Hero, whose betrothal occurs early in the play but plays out in the aforementioned, strangely understaged morning scene, where the emphasis appears to be more on Leonato’s comically easygoing nature and less so on their relationship.

In its monochrome trappings and insertion of a previous, failed relationship, the adaptation ends up not a true modernization of the material but a sly anachronism, a throwback to the '30s and ‘40s comedies of remarriage. Denisof in particular compares favorably to screwball heroes like Grant and Stewart, poised and relaxed in a good suit but capable of buffoonish, mile-a-minute patter and equally adept at a pratfall. It’s a savvy move, respectful of the blacker themes at the heart of some comedy classics (like the death row plot of His Girl Friday), but not so arch as to prevent the players from handling the words with their own particular graces.

Whedon’s bench is so deep that it’s possible to get this far in a review and not even mention Reed Diamond’s Don John, who dominates nearly every scene with a smooth baritone intonation of dialogue that sounds unnaturally natural flowing from his mouth. Watch it again and again and appreciate a new performance every time. That’s the pleasure of a good play.

For the Whedon acolyte, the Blu-ray offers a satisfying array of features, including two commentary tracks, one solo with Whedon and another with members of the cast. The one regrettable inclusion is a music video for “Sigh No More”, a song adapted from the play’s text, whose occurrence on the soundtrack provides one of the film’s true dead spots. But with two featurettes on the making of the film, plus the obligatory digital copy, it’s unlikely any lovers of the adaptation will find much to complain about here.

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