Joss Whedon has created some of the most beloved science fiction universes of our time, phenomenally successful on both cult and commercial terms. So what does a man like that do to clear his head, creatively? Tackle a little Shakespeare project, of course.
Directors are always taking a stab at the Bard, goosing things up to various degrees, sometimes following the plot and ditching the script (“Ten Things I Hate About You”), or animating it (surely you caught “Gnomeo and Juliet”), or keeping the script but changing the setting (Leonardo DiCaprio in “Romeo and Juliet”). Jeez, I’m really dating myself with these examples, but you know, I was a bookish teen in the 1990s, and Shakespeare adaptations with cute boys in them made an impression on me.
So it was only natural for nerd god Whedon to set his “Much Ado About Nothing” in space. Just kidding. Rather than a high-concept freak-out, Whedon’s breezy version retains fidelity to Shakespeare’s words, but has them spoken in our contemporary time. The cast wear sport coats and sundresses. The result of a secret, 12-day shoot in his own California home, the resulting film brings a casual immediacy to the lofty material, while remaining true to the story. The camera makes lovely use of natural lighting, and Whedon frames some memorable shots through mirrors, glass and underwater. It’s fun to imagine that, considering the set was his own home, he must have dreamed of some of these ideas for years.
I was less sold on the decision to shoot the film in black and white, which seemed like an aggressively “artsy” choice for no apparent reason. Perhaps it made it timeless. But, not to sound like a little old lady, but it made it rather difficult to keep track of which guy was which among a few of the characters. Considering much of the plot concerns lying, sneaking and conniving to trick people, this can prove problematic.
“Much Ado About Nothing” is the one where eventual lovers Benedick and Beatrice trade witty insults before being tricked into admitting they love one another. This remains one of a few formulas that romantic comedies follow today. While the plot is also driven by a love affair between the quiet Hero and Claudio, the scenes verbal sparring between the older and wiser lovers are the hallmark of this play.
As such, the slight, lovely Amy Acker carries the film as Beatrice, and she ably brings confidence and intelligence, but also a world weary vulnerability to her role. She matches wits with Alexis Denisof as Benedick, and, like most of the actors in the film, is a member of the Whedon television family, as a former “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” cast member.
Now, perhaps fans of “Buffy,” “Angel” and whatnot, who presumably would be a prime audience for this Whedon passion project, might find the familiarity of these actors weird and distracting. Like Bill the Vampire from “True Blood” trying to pass as Captain Von Trapp in the freaky live television “The Sound of Music,” what the heck was that about; I digress. Anyway, the whole Buffy/Shakespeare crossover was not an issue for me. Maybe, on the contrary, a complex cultural event took place right under my nose and I missed it.
At any rate, while Benedick and Beatrice fight and fall in love, Hero and Claudio are thwarted by the conniving, criminal brother of Don Pedro, who fools everyone into thinking that Hero is unfaithful. While much of this comedy is light and sexy, Hero’s plight brings a dark and sinister element to the playful proceedings.
All in all, “Much Ado About Nothing” is a delightful and worthy entry into the endless canon of Shakespeare adaptations, and if the point of setting the film in modern times was to emphasize the enduring meaning and simple watchability of Shakespeare, well, mission accomplished.