They say the Lord works in mysterious ways. Frankly, the Big Guy (or Gal) has got nothing on Joss Whedon. Apparently, the stress of putting together a billion dollar superhero epic involving many of Marvel’s main movie icons wasn’t enough for the ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ savant. So while on contractually mandated vacation from ‘The Avengers’ post-production, Whedon got together with his wife, Kai Cole, called up cinematographer Jay Hunter, and invited a few dozen of his friends to participate in a 12 day shoot of…an adaptation of William Shakespeare’s famed comedy of manners. Huh? Like God himself might say, “that man must be crazy.”
A beautiful, contemporized black and white version of ‘Much Ado About Nothing‘ was the result, and it’s a strange, slightly surreal movie experience. After all, if you’re like many a mainstream moviegoer, you’ve still got Kenneth Branagh’s splendid, sun-dappled take from 1993 stuck in your head. Featuring his then-wife, Emma Thompson, Denzel Washington, Keanu Reeves, and Michael Keaton, it was a giddy, joyful exploration of love, romance, honor, and oddball casting. Whedon’s work is slightly darker, drained of its bright and shiny sentiments by the choice of a monochrome backdrop. While the acting is exceptional, the overall tone takes some getting used to.
Filmed inside Whedon’s home in Santa Monica and brought up to date, at least as far as the costuming and accoutrements go, we are introduced to Governor Leonato (Clark Gregg) who welcomes returning war hero Don Pedro (Reed Diamond) and his protectors Claudio (Fran Kranz) and Benedict (Alexis Denisof), along with the Don’s deceptive brother Don John (Sean Maher) and his scheming confidants Conrade (Riki Lindhome) and Borachio (Spencer Treat Clark). Immediately, there is a spark between the young Claudio and Leonato’s daughter, Hero (Jillian Morgese). There is also some long simmering if slightly amorous animosity between Benedict and Leonato’s niece, Beatrice (Amy Acker). Over the next few days, Claudio will ask for Hero’s hand in marriage while a jealous Don John will scheme to break up their engagement.
Streamlining the narrative and adding a bit of welcomed slapstick along the way, Whedon makes ‘Much Ado About Nothing‘ his own. He takes what some might see as tired and dated and finds the modern meaning within. Sure, we still get those slightly odd moments when Benedict and Beatrice step out of the story and offer up their “I hate love/marriage” soliloquies, but for the most part, the plot moves along with efficiency and everyone is comfortable with the Bard’s awkward verse. In fact, when set alongside Branagh’s beloved interpretation, the slight differences are more readily apparent than the artistic agreements. The casting is, across the board, a bit better in Branaghs (though we could do without Reeves, Keaton, and Robert Sean Leonard as Claudio). In fact, Fran Kranz (who many may remember as the stoner in the Whedon penned horror spoof ‘Cabin in the Woods‘) acts circles around the former ‘House’ co-star.
It’s the same with Clark Gregg, who balances an inebriated good cheer with a wicked serious streak should anyone slander his family. The moment when Hero is accused of being anything less than a lady is a marvel to behold. On the downside, Denisof and Acker are no Branagh and Thompson. The English actors familiarity with the material and the ways to bring it to life result in a more natural, knowing performance. There are times when Whedon’s duo seem to struggle, eager to please and yet unsure how. This is also the case for Maher, who makes evil seem much more mild than menacing. Sure, he gets one good moment (when goading Claudio into checking up on his bride to be) but, for the most part, he’s more passive aggressive than threatening.
Whedon knows what he’s working with, however, and uses various camera tricks and staging ideas to keep the movie from getting bogged down or dull. The scenes where Benedict and Beatrice are tricked into thinking the other loves them are expertly crafted, the physical shtick of their eavesdropping never overdone or silly. Similarly, during a welcoming ‘party’ where Claudio first falls for Hero, Whedon works the outdoor setting, slyly canvassing the company to come across important pieces of dialogue. Certainly, there are stumbles (the movie was made in a mere 12 days, after all) and lack of color occasionally comes across as antithetical to the passions onscreen.
Yet when you consider the source (always a toughie, even for the more well-versed modern audience) and the time he committed to making it (right in the middle of tweaking ‘The Avengers,’ seriously?) Whedon’s ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ is a wonder. It’s light and engaging, fun without being forced and sparked with the kind of verbal gymnastics that only Shakespeare could create. Indeed, one of the best things about this take on the material is that all the actors seem to get the various jabs and jibes that the Bard put into his comedies. You can literally see them delight in spewing such well-written put downs. Sure, a texting teen might cross his or her eyes and think it’s English class again, but Whedon doesn’t care about them. This is a film for cinematic sophisticates, not the average smartphone scanning mouth breather.
It’s also an indication of just how talented a man Whedon really is. Who else would decide to take a breather from building one of the biggest superhero blockbusters of all time (and all the accompanying pressure that must have come along with that) to relax by…making another movie. Indeed, for someone who can suddenly show up with a masterpiece in hand (like the drop dead brilliant ‘Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog’) this appears to be par for the course. If you love what Branagh did before, you won’t think Whedon improved on it any. If this is your first introduction to the play or who produced it, you’ll love ‘Much Ado About Nothing.’ It’s accessible without being wholly arcane, and it’s a true testament to the skills of the man/men who created it.