Much Ado About Nothing (2012) — Image via lionsgate.com

Much Ado About Nothing

Directed by Joss Whedon (2012)

Most film versions of Shakespeare plays have discernible and fairly coherent agendas. In some cases, the film is meant to present a canonical version of the play for the ages. In other cases, the filmmaker has chosen to situate the play in a novel place and time, going to great pains to make the words and the setting fit together. Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing, on the other hand, is gleefully incoherent, reveling in anachronisms and sudden jumps from drama to romance to slapstick — elements that are often present in Shakespeare but usually smoothed over.

No doubt, the unique circumstances under which the film was created have something to do with its semi-improvisational feel. During a short break from post-production on his big-budget comic book adaptation, The Avengers, Whedon gathered together a group of actors, most of whom have worked with him on other projects, and filmed Much Ado in 12 days, primarily at his own home in Santa Monica. And while some of the actors had backgrounds in Shakespeare, others were approaching his work for the first time.

Much Ado About Nothing (2012) — Image via lionsgate.comLike pretty much every production of Much Ado, Whedon’s film focuses its attention on Beatrice (Amy Acker) and Benedick (Alexis Denisof), whose verbal sparring and eventual courtship is ostensibly the side plot to the romantic and temporarily tragic tale of Claudio (Fran Kranz) and Hero (Jillian Morgese). Whedon emphasizes the contrast between the latter couple’s naïve and idealistic vision of love and the former couple’s more mature and worldly approach when, at the beginning of the film, he portrays a previous tryst between Beatrice and Benedick — something only hinted at in the play — as an apparent counterpoint to Claudio’s unhealthy obsession with Hero’s virginity.

Though Whedon’s film is performed in modern dress, he does not yield to the temptation to turn Shakespeare’s Renaissance aristocrats and military officers into gangsters or corporate executives in order to make them recognizable as part of the modern world. More interestingly, several scenes that are sharply at odds with a modern sensibility are played straight, without a hint of irony. These include the scene in which Hero is denounced by Claudio and her father, Leonato (Clark Gregg), for her alleged wantonness, as well as the scene in which Beatrice urges Benedick to prove his manliness by killing Claudio for smearing Hero’s name. These are, in fact, two of the most heartfelt and compellingly performed scenes in the film.

Much Ado About Nothing (2012) — Image via lionsgate.comOf course, this being Whedon, it’s not all seriousness and emotional intensity. In particular, before the emergence of the false accusations against Hero, her interactions with her father seem oddly playful, as if Morgese and Gregg are sharing silent jokes. Meanwhile, Acker and Denisof do an excellent job with the witty banter that defines their characters’ relationship right up to the end of the play, and Nathan Fillion and Tom Lenk have no trouble with the inherently comical characters constable Dogberry and his deputy, Verges.

Rounding out the primary cast are Reed Diamond and Sean Maher, who give excellent performances as Don Pedro and Don John. Overall, while the acting in Whedon’s Much Ado is uniformly of high quality, it is far from uniform in any other way. Rather, each actor seems to be free to pursue an individual interpretation of his or her character, contributing to the anarchic feel of the film. This rendition may not be destined to be the one that is shown to generations of high school students as they are inducted into the canon of great literature, but fans of both Shakespeare and Whedon will not want to miss it.

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Eric Prindle

administers Bad Entertainment. He is also an attorney who leads a team of legal marketing copywriters at FindLaw. He is not Eric Prindle, the mixed martial arts fighter.