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Joss Whedon's Much Ado About Nothing
William Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing is one of the few plays by the Bard to not get extensive film adaptations. Aside from Kenneth Branagh's hilarious, My God it's full of stars version released in 1993, it's mostly gone untouched while stories like Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, MacBeth and others have gotten film after film. Enter Joss Whedon, nerd lord and former prisoner of Marvel Studios. A fan of the Bard, Whedon decided to film Much Ado About Nothing over twelve days at his home. The results are typical Whedon. While he doesn't quite reach Branagh's level of excellence, Whedon's adaptation is funny, well acted and surprisingly gripping. It's no wonder Whedon chose to pick this Shakespeare play to adapt, as it's very much in his comfort zone.
While a few alterations have been made and the setting has been updated to present day, Much Ado About Nothing retains its core plot. In Messina, Italy, Don Pedro (Reed Diamond), his brother Don John (Sean Maher) and their companions Benedick (Alexis Denisof) and Claudio (Fran Kranz) arrive at the estate of Leonato (Clark Gregg) for a month long visit. Quickly, the young Claudio falls in love Hero (Jillian Morgese) and they are soon to be wed. Meanwhile, Benedick and Beatrice (Amy Acker) are manipulated into admitting their feelings for each other by Don Pedro, Claudio, Leonato, Hero and pretty much everyone else living in the house. Everyone is having a good time, until the angry Don John and his companions (Spencer Treat Clark, Riki Lindhome) conspire to ruin Claudio and Hero's wedding. With everything in shambles, only Dogberry (Nathan Fillion), the estate's head of security, can prove Don John's misdeeds.
While working on The Avengers post production, Whedon took a contractual vacation and returned home. Still wanting to work (the nerd lord is a self diagnosed workaholic), Whedon chose to adapt The Bard's play based off numerous Shakespeare readings he had held over the years with friends. The move was shocking to only the people who don't know the writer/director's work. While he has primarily created original content for his films as opposed to adaptations, Much Ado About Nothing was an easy fit, a comedy with loads of banter and fantastic dialog that Whedon probably would've written himself if he lived in the sixteenth century. His experience in that area made him a natural fit to make this film, and Whedon had absolutely no problem putting his performers (most of them he had previously worked with) in a position to succeed and look great doing so.
But while the dialog is a trip, the real achievement of Much Ado About Nothing is the score, setting and look. Filming on pretty much no budget Whedon, who has previously composed songs for Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Dr. Horrible's Sing A Long Blog, did the whole score himself with minimal help from his brother Jed and Jed's wife Maurissa Tancharoen (the current showrunners for Whedon's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) . He nails it; the film's music beautifully ranges from vibrant to somber to heartfelt whenever it needs to. Another genius move was Whedon using his, a beautiful estate out in Santa Monica, as the films only location. If one didn't know any better, you could've mistaken the film for being a tour of Whedon's home, as you see everything from his basement to his bedroom to his children's bedroom (hilariously used as the quarters for Benedick and Claudio). In the hands of another director, you would think this might be some sort of vanity project. With Whedon however, it works, as his home feels big enough to be the estate of the wealthy Leonato (though not as big as the estate Branagh created in the 1993 film), and intimate enough that it highlights the story really well. Also effective was Whedon's decision to film Much Ado About Nothing in black and white, creating a timeless feel to contrast the film's obvious modern day setting. Whedon has always had a way with building unique sort of worlds, and his Messina is no different.
The casting is perfect for the film, particularly the two leads. Alexis Denisof and Amy Acker may not be widely known, but they've worked with Whedon several times in the past and had previously played lovers (albeit briefly) in Whedon's Buffy spinoff Angel (one of the best shows ever for my money). Whedon wisely puts the two together again here, and their chemistry is amazing, especially Benedick and Beatrice engage in their numerous arguments throughout the film. Even when they aren't together, they're compelling, especially Acker. The other two standouts are the always charismatic Nathan Fillion as Dogberry and the newcomer Jillian Morgese as Hero. Whedon discovered Morgese when she appeared as a walk on in The Avengers, believing she had a quality that was undeniable. He's not wrong. Morgese may not say much, but she's radiant, soulful and powerful as hero, someone who doesn't need a lot to command the screen when she appears. I expect we'll be seeing more from her down the road. The rest of the cast, whether it be Diamond, Kranz, Ashley Johnson (who plays Margaret the maid), Gregg, Tom Lenk or Maher, delivers, though Maher's Don John is unfortunately hamstrung by poor development. This isn't Whedon's fault, as Shakespeare (often known for creating captivating villains), simply made Don John more one dimensional than you would've expected.
Even as a Whedon fan boy, I can't quite lift Much Ado About Nothing into the realm of all time great Shakespeare adaptations. It doesn't quite have the bombast, epic feel of Branagh's adaptation, and it certainly doesn't reach the levels of some of Olivier's work or Branagh's unbelievable adaptations of Hamlet and Henry V. But honestly, I don't think that was Whedon's intent. I can't speak for the man, but his Much Ado About Nothing appears to be a film that was meant to be fun, a fast talking comedy with sensibilities similar to Whedon's own and a chance to highlight the strong feminist undercurrents in the filmmaker's work (one thing Whedon does better than Branagh is presenting Beatrice as a much stronger character. And Branagh had Emma Thompson in the role!). If nothing else, it accomplishes both of those feats, serves as showcase for a group of highly underrated performers, and proves that Whedon is much more than a comic book film director. Hopefully he'll start making more of these films now that he's free from the life sucking grip known as Marvel Studios.