William Shakespeare. Joss Whedon. Two masters of the English language. One, a man whose scripts and quirky neologisms have permeated the language of the world at large… and the other one’s William Shakespeare, of which not much new can be said. Suffice it to say that a meeting of the minds was certainly inevitable, and it has finally come to fruition with Whedon’s adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing. The results? A very welcome, low-key, small budget, and entertaining visualization of one of The Bard’s most famous comedies.
Whedon has a knack for using performers from his previous projects in the “Whedonverse,” namely “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” its spinoff “Angel,” “Firefly,” its spinoff film Serenity, “Dollhouse,” the web series “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog”, the film The Cabin in the Woods (which he co-wrote), and his directorial blockbuster, Marvel’s The Avengers. Much Ado About Nothing finds its roles filled by actors from all of these properties: Alexis Denisof (BTVS, Angel) as Benedick, Amy Acker (Angel, Dollhouse) as Beatrice, Reed Diamond (Dollhouse) as Don Pedro, Sean Maher (Firefly, Serenity) as Don John, Clark Gregg (The Avengers) as Leonato, Fran Kranz (Dollhouse, The Cabin in the Woods) as Claudio, and fan favorite Nathan Fillion (BTVS, Firefly, Serenity, Dr. Horrible) as Dogberry. He likes to use the same actors because they provide exactly what he’s looking for – true performances from true performers, not just a name actor who’s looking for a notch on his or her belt.
Each of them gives subtle, inspired performances, often going against what each actor is most known for. Kranz, who’s most known for playing loopy, oddly crazy characters, plays it totally straight as the lovestruck Claudio, smitten by the beautiful Hero (newcomer Jillian Morgese). And once forces on the side of love and the side of hate start conspiring to either join the two or drive the two apart, the machinations grow ever more beautiful or sinister, especially on the part of Don John, which Maher seems to be playing according to something Alfred Pennyworth said in The Dark Knight: “Some men just want to watch the world burn.” Maher makes Don John truly evil, seething with horrible, unending spite for the world and all who walk in it, including his co-conspirators Borachio (Spencer Treat Clark) and Conrade (Riki Lindhorne). Balancing that is the lighthearted duo of Benedick and Beatriz; their tense relationship, so delightfully daggered in Shakespeare’s original play, is given a new context as a result of a wordless prologue concerning the two of them. The spiked wit they throw at each other is given new depth and more meaning; while Shakespeare’s words remain intact, the weight they carry increases in volumes just by inserting this one innocuous scene at the beginning.
All of Shakespeare’s humor is kept intact and reimbued with the kind of comedic zing for which Whedon is most known, most notably by Nathan Fillion. His portrayal of Dogberry uses a lot of his own odd persona, playing crazy as straight as possible, with his moral indignance at being called an “ass” being one of the funniest things about this movie. Whedon’s direction is flawless; just by having his actors place emphasis on certain words, or by getting a line read with deadpan snark, he successfully merges modern sensibilities with Shakespeare’s text, making it more accessible to audiences and giving people a new reason to rediscover this wonderful play. Until now, I held Kenneth Branagh’s 1993 filmed interpretation as the template by which all others are measured; Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing gives Branagh’s version a run for its money, eventually besting it by making it small-scale and full of the humanity that both Shakespeare and Whedon regularly display in every one of their works.