Written PostJosh Reviews Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing

Josh Reviews Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing

After making The Avengers, Joss Whedon got a bunch of his friends and frequent collaborators together and, over 12 days and working in and around his own house, shot a black-and-white adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing.  I missed this when it was very briefly released in theatres this past summer, but had a copy in my hands the week it came out on DVD.  What a delightful, joy-filled film!  This is a magnificent adaptation — a wonderfully funny, dramatic, and romantic concoction.

I must admit that Much Ado About Nothing has never been one of my favorite Shakespeare plays.  I always find myself far more interested in his tragedies and histories than I am in his comedies.  But under Joss Whedon’s hand this story of love and deceit comes to life, and I was quickly rather completely enraptured by the story being told.

The great joy of the film is seeing so many familiar televison faces (almost all of them from various Joss Whedon shows) doing Shakespeare.  And they are all, to the last, extraordinarily impressive!!

The two leads, Beatrice and Benedick, are played by Amy Acker (Angel and Dollhouse) and Alexis Denisof (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Dollhouse), and both are marvelous, easily carrying the weight of these major roles.  Ms. Acker is a great beauty and a fiercely talented actor, someone who well-deserves to be the lead in LOTS of movies. She is particularly nimble with the dialogue, and her performance of the “if only I were a man” speech is powerful.  Alexis Denisof is equally engaging.  I was particularly impressed by how well he was able to play the comedic side of the rcharacter.  The scene in which he preens himself outside, doing all sorts of outlandish stretches in an effort to impress Beatrice, is one of the biggest laughs in the film.

There are an incredible number of talented performers in the film, each of whom shines in many different ways.  I was particularly impressed with Reed Diamond’s work as Don Pedro.  I was immediately taken by how facile Mr. Diamond was with the dialogue.  It’s extraordinarily impressive how well he was able to speak the words and to bring their meaning to life, in an incredibly naturalistic way.  (Watching the special features, it turns out he went to Juilliard and has been waiting his whole life to have an opportunity to play Shakespeare.  Well done, sir, you hit this one out of the park.)

I was also extremely taken by Nathan Fillion and Tom Lenk’s work as the bumbling inspector pair Dogberry and Verges.  The two men are HILARIOUS together, a terrific comedy team.  Nathan Fillion doesn’t seem quite as comfortable with the language as some of the other actors, but he more than makes up for it with an amazing physical performance that really nails the comedy of his scenes.  The Dogberry and Verges scenes are some of the most memorable of the whole film.  (The moment in which a flummoxed Dogberry accidentally puts on the jacket of his much-smaller partner is particularly delightful.)

I could spend this whole review talking just about the cast.  They are all SO GOOD!  Clark Gregg (Agent Coulson from The Avengers) as Leonato; Fran Kranz (Dollhouse and The Cabin in the Woods) as Claudio; Sean Maher (Dr. Simon Tam from Firefly) as Don Jon; Spencer Treat Clarke (Unbreakable) as Borachio… all of these familiar faces are amazing!  I was also impressed by several performers I had never seen before: Jillian Morgese as Hero, and the comedy duo of Nick Kocher and Brian McElhaney as the First and Second Watchmen.

The film is shot in gorgeous black and white, which lends the film an extra air of gravity (while also, as Mr. Whedon discusses on the DVD’s special features, giving them a lot of extra production value for their very low budget). It’s hard to believe that this film was all filmed in Mr. Whedon’s house and backyard.  (It helps that he has a pretty awesome, gorgeous house.)  I find the whole low-budget, just-a-bunch-of-friends-together-doing-Shakespeare aesthetic to be extraordinarily endearing.  But don’t get me wrong, it’s not like they just filmed a table-read.  This is a MOVIE, and it is rather impressively gorgeous.  Mr. Whedon is much-praised as a writer, but this is the first project of his where I have been truly bowled over by his skills as a director.  The film is beautifully composed, and he was able to turn his home into an entire universe in which the story takes place.  Not to mention his this-looks-easier-than-I-bet-it-really-was skill at drawing incredible performances out of his actors.

Mr. Whedon has condensed the play into a film that is about an hour and forty-five minutes long, and he has done a remarkable job at streamlining the story in a way that not only doesn’t lose anything, but arguably enhances the clarity of the narrative.  Mr. Whedon and his actors have also thrown in all sorts of little touches and staging decisions that show they really understand this play, and that help bring the audience along with the story and the language.  I have to make particular praise of the dialogue-free prologue that Mr. Whedon has added at the start of the film, in which we see Beatrice and Benedick after a one-night-stand.  It’s certainly a possibility, reading the play, that Beatrice and Benedick had gotten together some-time in the past, before the events of the story.  I love that Mr. Whedon decided to embrace that possibility.  I think it gives the play a whole new spin, and it allows the audience to immediately understand the dynamic between the two when they first encounter one another in the story.

If you love the work of William Shakespeare, then you absolutely must check out this version of Much Ado About Nothing.  And if you find yourself intimidated by Shakespeare, or disinterested, I encourage you to put aside those preconceptions and let this film take you away.

Bravo to Joss Whedon and his talented band of collaborators.  I’d love it if they could film a different Shakespeare play in Mr. Whedon’s backyard each year.  Sound like a plan…?