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Much Ado About Nothing
(USA, 109 min.)
Adapted for the screen and directed by Joss Whedon
Starring: Amy Acker, Alex Denisof, Clark Gregg, Reed Diamond, Fran Kranz, Jillian Morgese, Nathan Fillion, Sean Maher, Spencer Treat Clark, Ashley Johnson.
Alexis Denisof and Amy Acker in Much Ado about Nothing.
 An eOne Films release. (Credit: Elsa-Guillet-Chapuis)
“He hath indeed better bettered expectation than you must expect of me to tell you how.”
-William Shakespeare, Much Ado About Nothing 1.1.13-14
Joss Whedon, unlike Roland Emmerich, proves that a blockbuster helmsman can indeed make a Shakespeare movie. Whedon’s spirited Much Ado About Nothing, to be fair, is legitimate Shakespeare while Emmerich’s Anonymous is just a Shakespearean excuse to blow shit up. (It, too, was much ado about nothing.) Whedon’s take on the Bard’s popular comedy—one of his better ones—is just about the least likely project one expects from the guy who made a billion-dollar behemoth like The Avengers. The novelty of Much Ado About Nothing is half the fun and this indie romp is a fine alternative to the other Joss Whedon-y stuff at the multiplex this summer.

Whedon, under contractual obligation to take time off after shooting The Avengers, assembled his best buds in his own home and had them re-create some Shakespeare in less than twelve days of filming. Shooting Shakespeare on the fly with pals in the comfort of one’s abode, Much Ado About Nothing is the movie every film student wanted to make in university. It’s a booze-fuelled party spoken in verse and shot as a film.

This Much Ado About Nothing is Shakespeare on a shoestring. The adaptation that could have been made by anyone, really, but few cases of Shakespeare on film are so fun and unpretentious. The infectious giddiness of the production puts Whedon in a fun teacher/student relationship with his usual collaborators. It’s like FILM 301: Shakespeare on Film for the art-house crowd, as Whedon’s take provides one of the most accessible renderings of Shakespeare yet, even though it is one of the most dialogue-heavy and visually-restrained adaptations to hit the screen. One learns the rhyme and reason of the play through the party-hearty syntax of the production.

Much Ado About Nothing is actually a fine choice for Whedon’s gay gathering, as the play itself is largely confined to the single setting of the home of Leonato (Clark Gregg) as he is visited by Don Pedro (Reed Diamond) and his entourage for a convivial gathering, which leads to a marriage arrangement between Leonato’s daughter, Hero (Jillian Morgese) and Don Pedro’s lord Claudio (Fran Kranz). As with any large gathering of wine and friends, the party sees many whisperings in corners, couplings in bedchambers, and ramblings fuelled by drink. The latter act is especially controversial as the bride-to-be’s cousin, Beatrice (Amy Acker) goes on a lengthy tirade about her disdain for Don Pedro’s top jester, Benedick (Alex Denisof), unbeknownst that her ear is said man in a mask. Beatrice and Benedick are a match made in heaven, so the partygoers say in all their asides and Shakespearean gossip.

Acker and Denisof are especially strong as the comically star-crossed lovers, who mask their feeling barbs and witticisms. They’re easily the standouts among the fun ensemble, as is Nathan Fillion as the bumbling doofus Dogberry, although some of the partygoers don’t seem as comfortable with the verse as others do. Such a quick production might merely lead lesser actors to remember their lines, but the ones with a firm grasp of the language fit perfectly with the breeziness and whimsicality of Whedon’s direction. It’s a most unexpected turn for him.

Whedon, sticking to the original text quite faithfully aside from a shrewd opening frame on the perils and pleasures of the one-night stand, shoots Much Ado About Nothing in a straightforward manner. Much Ado lets the words and performances convey the mood and humour of the text. Whedon also employs his luxuriant and spacious house to invest the play with a quirky energy, as windows, kitchen fixtures, and dollhouses accentuate the comedy of manners with glee. The house provides the visual equivalent that many scholars, reviewers, and die-hards often demand in seeing Shakespeare on film, as the plays on interior/exterior afford endless sight gags while the confines of the house’s walls and fences draw out Benedick’s hilarious plight on the suffocating bind of marriage. There’s also an unusual interlude with some Cirque du Soleil-ish acrobatics to accompany one of Whedon’s inspired renderings of the songs from the original play. The black-and-white cinematography, meanwhile, is slightly gratuitous, but it adds a sense of timelessness to this contemporary-set spin on Much Ado.

Whedon and the cast also find a feverishness in Much Ado that shows how the Bard’s plays might benefit from retrospective re-reading. Every other line plays as a double entendre regardless of whether Shakes wanted them to, so this Much Ado is sprightly and intoxicatingly saucy. It still has the undercurrent of tragedy of the play’s final turn, which is balanced rather well as the spirited cast brings the party to its merry conclusion. This jazzy Much Ado About Nothing is as fun to watch as it probably was to make.

Rating: ★★★★ (out of ★★★★★)

Much Ado About Nothing is currently playing in Ottawa at The ByTowne
and in Toronto at the Carlton.
Update: It opens at The Mayfair August 16.