If you’re disappointed in, or simply growing numb to, this summer’s would-be blockbusters — The Lone Ranger, World War Z, Man of Steel, Pacific Rim — I have
the solution: Joss Whedon’s adaptation of Much Ado about Nothing.
You may be skeptical of a film that can be promoted as “from the director of The Avengers and based on the play by William Shakespeare” but Whedon’s Much Ado is just that. And it’s a delight.
Being a Whedonite isn’t a prerequisite, although those of us who suffered through Wesley Wyndham-Pryce and Winifred Burkle’s star-crossed romance on Joss’s Angel find resonance in Alexis Denisof and Amy Acker portraying Much Ado’s Benedick and Beatrice.
Being a Shakespearophile isn’t a prerequisite either, although the movie is largely faithful to the original text, meaning that if you flat-out can’t stand Elizabethan English (or, for that matter, the beauty of black-&-white film) then oh well. To the rest of you? Hope you have a theater in traveling distance that shows lovely little works like this.
Whedon shot Much Ado at his own home in Santa Monica, California, designed by
his wife Kai Cole, at Cole’s recommendation during a scheduled vacation between shooting and editing The Avengers. He’d held Shakespeare readings at the house for years with friends — many of the people now populating the feature, in fact. The cast includes, beyond Denisof and the breathtaking Acker, several recurring faces in Whedon’s oeuvre from Buffy and Angel to Firefly, Dollhouse, and last year’s The Cabin in the Woods: Fran Krantz as Claudio, Reed Diamond as Don Pedro, Clark Gregg (low-key audience fave Phil Coulson, agent of SHIELD, in the recent Marvel films from Iron Man through The Avengers) as Leonato, Nathan Fillion as Constable Dogberry, and Tom Lenk as Deputy Verges. Much Ado introduces Jillian Morgese, whom Joss asked to audition for the smaller film while she was an extra on the Avengers set, as Hero.
Director of photography Jay Hunter makes everything look gorgeous (not that hard, perhaps, with this setting and these actors), sometimes quirkily so, all in service to the story. Likewise doing a standout job is the film’s composer — Joss Whedon again, who in addition to writing the instrumental score put lyrics of Shakespeare’s that appear in the text to music. Joss’s brother Jed Whedon and Jed’s wife Maurissa Tancharoen, both of whom worked with Joss on Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, perform the catchy “Sigh No More”.
This Much Ado drapes its characters in modern dress, accoutrements, and technology, but the dialogue and roles — and supposed setting of Sicily — are maintained, with only a few significant inventions.
One twist is that Conrade is a woman. She’s portrayed by Riki Lindhome, half of the satiric music duo Garfunkel and Oates, and Whedon gives new shading to his/her relationship with the scheming Don John, portrayed by Sean Maher of Firefly, in making it sexual.
Whedon’s biggest alteration to the play as written, however, is the silent opening sequence, a prologue that provides specific context for Beatrice and Benedick’s contentious relationship, informed by a later line of Beatrice’s.
There’s no urban mayhem here. Much Ado’s idea of a set piece is its protagonists taking prat falls as they squirm to stay hidden while overhearing conversations which they don’t realize were designed exactly for their prying ears. It’s just the perfect antidote to what’s become the usual summer-movie fare, even when that fare is itself quite fun. You’ll leave wanting to spend more time with these characters, in this world.
Much Ado about Nothing, rated PG-13 for mild sexuality and brief drug use, was produced by Kai Cole and Joss Whedon for Bellwether Pictures. Lionsgate Films and Roadside Attractions distributed the movie, which premiered in September 2012 at the Toronto International Film Festival and opened in the United States and United Kingdom in June 2013.
Related: My Buffy Summer • Silent Treatment • Cabin Fever