While it would be presumptuous for me to label any of Shakespeare’s plays his ‘best’ – I have read many of them, and even taken a few classes on the subject, but am certainly not an expert – I can say with confidence that Much Ado About Nothing is my favorite. While many of Shakespeare’s comedies require extensive notes and annotations to understand the humor – pun sources, word plays, and cultural jokes do not tend to survive 500 years historical distance – Much Ado has barely aged a day. Even on the page, I find it consistently laugh-out-loud funny, often hysterically so, because nearly all the humor stems organically from some of the most clearly defined and richly realized characters across all of Shakespeare’s texts. The plot – that of rumors, both malicious and well-intended, leading to romantic harmony and betrayal – is a fun one, but mostly secondary to the main attraction of letting such wonderful and distinctive characters bounce off one another, or even engage in all-out verbal warfare, to humorous, clever, and warmly sincere effect.
It is, in short, exactly the kind of play Joss Whedon would have written had he lived in the late-16th century, and one that obviously appeals to his particular sensibilities now. It is easy to imagine the play’s fast-talking, quick-witted language and vivid characterization as major influences on his writing style, and indeed, his Much Ado About Nothing is a real labor of love. Shot on the cheap over just twelve days, in and around Whedon’s actual home, with a cast comprised almost entirely of beloved performers from prior Whedon productions, the film is more or less exactly what one would expect: Beautifully acted, insightfully staged, enormously funny, and, at times, relentlessly casual, as if one were attending an intimate Shakespeare reading at Joss’s house. There are some pleasant surprises along the way, including a remarkably poignant emotional heft in the fifth act, but for the most part, this is the film I had imagined since it was first announced. That lack of revelation may serve as a disappointment to some fans, but I am perfectly content to take the film for what it is: A small but immensely satisfying treat, and one of the most infectiously enjoyable Shakespeare films in living memory.
I am especially overjoyed to see leads Beatrice and Benedick – characters so popular that, for a long while after Shakespeare’s death, the play was simply referred to by their names – brought so vividly to life by the immensely talented Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof. These are two of the greatest romantic leads in the history of English-language writing, their initial ‘merry war’ of wits giving way to one of the sweetest and most human courtships in all of Shakespeare’s work, and they are not easy parts to pull off. Capturing the various funny, arrogant, and sincere sides of the characters calls for deep, charismatic, multi-faceted performances, and that is exactly what Acker and Denisof deliver.
Acker is one of my favorite underused actresses in Hollywood, one of those performers who, especially in prior work with Whedon on Angel, Dollhouse, and The Cabin in the Woods, can compellingly inhabit any supporting part with remarkable ease. Every time I see her in something, she always threatens to steal the show or overshadow her co-stars, and it is absolutely wonderful to see her talents set free here in a leading capacity. As Beatrice, Acker relishes every glorious line she has to deliver, simply overflowing with personality, charm, humanity, and a perceptive, underlying vulnerability. She is shockingly funny, but even better playing the emotional or romantic beats, all without ever once sacrificing the character’s iconic inner strength. Denisof, another actor capable of doing great work in roles of any size, is equally terrific. His Benedick probably gets the biggest laughs of the movie, and there is something inherently hilarious about his physical approach to the role, but as with Acker, what impresses me most is the poignancy of his work. He plays Benedick as a fundamentally good man who struggles to express anything other than his intelligence and ego, just as Beatrice lets her arrogance get in the way of her more attractive qualities.
Both performers understand their characters down to the core, adding real weight and meaning to their romantic arc, and their chemistry is simply off the charts. Every scene Acker and Denisof share stands among the best released to theatres this year, and by the time Beatrice and Benedick finally start seeing eye to eye romantically, they had me believing in the concept of true love. Much Ado About Nothing is an ensemble-heavy play, and it would be very easy to make a version where Beatrice and Benedick get lost or diluted in the middle-act shuffles, but Whedon makes sure these characters exist clearly at the center of things, and gives each of their exchanges and monologues proper room to breathe.
Characterization and performance is, naturally, the film’s strong suit across the board. I am particularly impressed by Clark Gregg’s work as Leonato, the main patriarch of the story; Gregg is simply one of the most understatedly charming and magnetic actors out there, and this may be my favorite performance of his to date. He is, in a word, awesome throughout, and Reed Diamond, an actor I have not necessarily noticed in the past, transforms one of the drier roles in the play, Don Pedro, into a truly invaluable asset. Casting Captain Malcolm Reynolds himself, Nathan Fillion, as inept detective Dogberry, one of Shakespeare’s single funniest characters, is exactly as brilliant as one would have expected, and Whedon’s choice to play antagonist Don Jon the Bastard (an unexpectedly hilarious Sean Maher) entirely for laughs is an excellent one.
One of the trickiest elements of the play to stage in modern times is the arc of Count Claudio, a friend to Don Pedro whose love-at-first-sight engagement to Hero, daughter of Leonato, is the main narrative thrust of the story. Claudio is tricked by Don Jon into believing Claudio has had sex with another man before their wedding, which leads him to publicly, viciously shame her at the ceremony. It can be an extremely off-putting scene – one with the potential to render the play’s endgame contrived and unbelievable – if not executed perfectly, but thanks to strong work by Fran Kranz and newcomer Jillian Morgese as Claudio and Hero, as well as a very precise tonal atmosphere in the relevant scenes, the film pulls it off rather spectacularly. Kranz pitches Claudio at the perfect balance of petulance and vulnerability, making him just unlikeable enough for Beatrice’s revenge subplot to feel justified, but no so irredeemable as to make his and Hero’s eventual happiness unearned.
Despite its overtly homemade style, Much Ado About Nothing never feels anything less than thoroughly cinematic. I often criticize Shakespeare movies for sacrificing filmic energy and pace out of slavish devotion to the bard, but even if he is working with a budget smaller than that allotted to craft services on any given day of The Avengers shoot, Joss Whedon remains one of the sharpest directors out there, and imbues Much Ado About Nothing with the distinct rhythms of cinema. Most of Shakespeare’s dialogue is present and accounted for, but Whedon is careful to let the film breathe, and not become wall-to-wall dialogue. It opens with a silent but thematically crucial moment between Beatrice and Benedick, one that adds an intriguing layer of sexuality to the film, and there are many other visual-driven scenes throughout, including a wonderfully evocative party sequence and an emotionally resonant funeral. And when the film is dialogue heavy, Whedon has a compelling and unique visual take on every sequence. Whether in the composition of the image or staging of performers, the visuals always work in perfect harmony with the dialogue to create further implicit meaning or humor (and sometimes both, as in the physical comedy both Beatrice and Benedick perform upon hearing the other apparently loves them).
As a result, Much Ado About Nothing is easily one of the liveliest Shakespeare adaptations to date, and Whedon’s decision to stage the majority of the action in and around his actual home does not serve to limit the film, but expand upon its overall personality and tone. It is a cliché to say so, but Whedon uses his house so well that it quickly becomes a character in its own right, and limiting the space captures the play’s strong sense of enclosure. The digital cinematography by Jay Hunter is nothing particularly special, and looks every penny of its budgetary limitations, but it evokes the setting quite nicely, and the choice to film in black and white is a lovely one. Similarly, the original score (written by Whedon himself) is simple but sincere, and even better are two expansions of songs from the text, scored by Whedon and performed by his sister-in-law and frequent creative collaborator Maurissa Tancharoen.
Much of what I have written about the film so far could have been assumed from the outset. Great acting, direction, and technical merits are par for the course for Whedon. What genuinely surprises me about the film is the emotional weight it carries, especially near the end. One of the great things about Shakespeare’s plays is how the various arcs of the story and characters build so neatly and beautifully toward the final act, where everything comes together in immensely satisfying fashion. Whedon’s Much Ado is one of the clearest cinematic examples I can think of that captures this particular quality of Shakespeare’s work; from the end of the fourth act on, the film is all pay-off, the groundwork having been so expertly laid that the final scenes have real, powerful impact. It is an irresistible joy to see Beatrice and Benedick finally embrace, or to see Claudio humbled and redeemed, and I think it is safe to say the play’s final scenes have never hit me this hard before in any other incarnation.
And that, I think, is what matters most. This is intimate, small-scale Shakespeare to be sure, but for a low-budget production made almost entirely out of passion and creative energy, it evokes every side of this great text in clever and insightful fashion, bringing both the humor and pathos out to degrees that may take audiences aback. I have seen better films this year, but I doubt there is a single one I will revisit as much as this one. Much Ado About Nothing is a minor triumph for Whedon and company, but a triumph nevertheless.