Much Ado About Nothing (2013)

Director: Joss Whedon

Starring: Amy Acker, Alexis Denisof, Reed Diamond, Nathan Fillion, Clark Gregg, Fran Kranz, Sean Maher, Jillian Morgese

All over the world, friends gather together for special events. Maybe it’s Super Bowl Sunday. Perhaps your favorite TV show is running a marathon. Who knows… The occasion could be a poetry reading. If you’re really confident and adventerous, you may bring a film camera along to really capture the moment. If, like Joss Whedon, your circle of friends is a very tight-knit group, and you have the equipment available, why not make a movie together? Especially if the subject is Shakespeare.

Remakes tend to promote the image of creative bankruptcy, but in the world of the stage play, everything is fair game to be done over and over again, with different casts in different eras. So too it is with their film adaptations. Everybody has their favorite cinematic versions of “Romeo & Juliet,” “Hamlet,” or “Othello,” among others. Which one it is quite largely will depend on which generation you ask. Up until now, most had probably only been aware of the 1993 “Much Ado About Nothing,” directed by and starring Kenneth Branagh. Working with a considerably smaller budget, Joss Whedon makes two clever cost-cutting decisions. First, his “Much Ado About Nothing” is shot entirely in black and white and, second, Whedon bypasses the need for studio sets and Italian location shots by setting up the cameras inside and outside of his own home in Santa Monica, California.

As the movie begins, both Benedick (Alexis Denisof) and Beatrice (Amy Acker) act abrasively towards one another. Although both are completely oblivious, everyone around them can see as clear as day that each loves the other, and they do everything they can to plant the seeds for these two to find their way into each others’ hearts. Conspiracy is the name of the game. An evil force who goes by the name of Don John (Sean Maher) sees the intentions of the young Claudio (Fran Kranz) to marry Hero (Jillian Morgese), and hatches a dastardly plan to trick Claudio, sully the good name of Hero, and shame her father Leonato (Clark Gregg), the Governor of Messina. It is a common theme in the works of both William Shakespeare and of Joss Whedon that the bliss of romance is often fleeting, sometimes meeting an abrupt and deadly end. There is much that is uncommon about “Much Ado.”

Shakespeare can sometimes be difficult to follow, so it helps when you are familiar with the original material. Being familiar with the cast helps, too. I performed in a high school production of “Much Ado About Nothing,” and I am probably just as familiar with it as any of Shakespeare’s plays. I’m also well-versed in the works of Joss Whedon, having followed since the beginning, from the “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” TV series all the way to the present day with “The Avengers” and TV’s “Agents of SHIELD.” Whedon has acquired a lot of regulars, or actors with whom he works on a regular basis.

For the record, those from the “Much Ado” cast who appeared in one or more of Whedon’s prior TV series and films:

“Buffy the Vampire Slayer” – Alexis Denisof, Tom Lenk and Riki Lindhome

“Angel” – Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof

“Firefly” – Nathan Fillion and Sean Maher

“Dollhouse” – Amy Acker, Alexis Denisof, Reed Diamond, Fran Kranz and Ashley Johnson

“The Avengers” – Clark Gregg, Alexis Denisof, Romy Rosemont and Ashley Johnson

Denisof and Acker have played romantic interests before, on “Angel.” Although Benedick and Beatrice are quite different from the characters they played over a decade earlier, it is that prior experience that makes their chemistry here more than believable. Denisof in particular (although he may not be in the caliber of a Kenneth Branagh) gives a terrific, at times hilarious performance. Playing against type is Sean Maher, who is known mostly for his shy, good guy roles. He almost makes you forget that Keanu Reeves once featured as Don John. But of course, one cannot speak of the performances in Joss Whedon’s “Much Ado About Nothing” without mentioning Nathan Fillion as Dogberry. While it’s true that he’s basically playing the same kind of character as in “Firefly” …perhaps a bit smarter… he leaves no room for doubt that he plays it well, and pretty much steals the show for the small amount of time he’s onscreen.

It is admittedly tough for me to watch most Shakespeare adaptations which have been transported from their usual setting into the present day. They just look better, and feel more authentic, when presented as closely as possible to what the playwright intended. Some, like 1995’s “Richard III” are exceptions to the rule. Joss Whedon’s “Much Ado About Nothing” stands as another example, largely due to the novelty of filming it in the director’s own house. While in the middle of filming “The Avengers,” Whedon put this smaller-scale project together in just 12 days. The finished project does not in any way resemble that of a rush job. It is right up there among my favorite Shakespeare adaptations, and should be on anyone’s short-list of must-see movies.

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