There’s an obvious reason Shakespeare’s plays never stray far from popular culture (beyond their conveniently lapsed copyright statuses), and that is the way Shakespeare wrote his characters. His characters, despite their utterances of “thou,” “thee,” and “betwixt,” have a timeless, universal quality. Human nature hasn’t changed that much since Shakespeare’s time. Sons still grieve their fathers, parents still fail their children (and vice-versa), and ambition often leads to a downfall. Shakespeare understood the ways in which human beings interact with one another, as well as the emotions and desires that drive them. As a result, you can take almost any Shakespeare play, place it in almost any time or place, and the characters will feel as though they belong.
Shakespeare’s comedy Much Ado about Nothing is probably the closest Shakespeare ever came to creating a screwball comedy, with Benedict’s and Beatrice’s rapid-fire insults and surreal, broad humor of Constable Dogberry. Kenneth Branagh adapted the comedy in 1993, and displayed how clever the dialogue could be when in the hands of capable actors.
Joss Whedon’s delightful adaptation of Much Ado about Nothing seems to take place in some nether world that exists between eras. The black-and-white cinematography gives the film a nostalgic, bygone era feel coupled with the modern use of iPhones, a modern, lush mansion (Whedon’s own home, in fact), and celebrity news broadcasts. It seems to exist as a film outside of time, and it is all the better for it. He assembles a cast of Whedon stalwarts (Amy Acker, Sean Maher, Alexis Denisof, Nathan Fillion, and Clark Gregg, just to name a few) and creates one of the most seemingly, effortlessly delightful films in recent years, and giving Angel’s Wesley and Fred the happy ending Joss Whedon ensured they didn’t get on said television show.
The plot is almost irrelevant, with its bevy of deceptions and misunderstandings. Prince Don Pedro (a well-cast Reed Diamond), Benedict (a charming Alexis Denisof), Don John, Don Pedro’s bastard brother (an appropriately slimy Sean Maher), and Claudio (Fran Kranz) return from battle to visit and rest at the home of Leonato (a naturally funny Clark Gregg). Meanwhile, Benedict and Beatrice verbally spar (and are deceived into admitting what the audience has known about them from the onset: they’re destined to be together), Claudio falls in love-at-first-sight with Leonato’s daughter, Hero (Jillian Morgese), and Don John schemes to ruin everyone’s lives, because he’s just that sort of guy.
Will everything resolve itself, and will the lovers live happily ever after? Of course. You don’t go to a Shakespeare comedy, or any kind of comedy for that matter, not having at least a rough idea of how events will play themselves out. What matters is how effectively the comedy plays and the emotional response the performance evokes from the viewer. Whedon’s sure direction and natural ability to guide comedic lines and scenarios to their funniest potential, and Much Ado about Nothing pops and fizzes like the finest champagne.
Of course, even the surest and most expert direction can only go so far. Eventually, Much Ado about Nothing rests on the ability of its cast, and fortunately Whedon has ensured every part is beautifully cast. Acker, a Joss Whedon regular, makes for a fantastic Beatrice, capturing both her prickly exterior and the soft, vulnerable heart her barbs conceal. Alexis Denisof, a Whedon veteran, Angel and Dollhouse, does not sound quite as comfortable speaking Shakespearean text, but he accomplishes something far more difficult: ensuring Benedict’s likability, despite his biting wit and early, casual misogyny.
Acker’s and Denisof’s performances ensure the audience roots for Benedict and Beatrice to come together, and they have a lovely chemistry together.
No one goes to Much Ado to see Claudio and Hero interact. They’re really just there to be the targets of Don John’s cruelty, but Kranz and Morgese do what they can to make the characters sympathetic and likable.
Sean Maher makes for an appropriately malicious Don John, even if his motivations really amount to “because I felt like it.”
You may have noticed I haven’t discussed Nathan Fillion’s Constable Dogberry. Dogberry is a difficult character to both make funny and ensure the character feels as though he’s in the same film as the rest of the story’s action. Michael Keaton makes for a comically effective Dogberry in Kenneth Branagh’s version, but he feels like he stepped out of an entirely different film, one far broader and more physical comedy based than the one we’ve been watching. Let’s get something out-of-the-way first. Nathan FIllion makes for a wonderfully comic Dogberry, playing him as though he thinks he’s a lead on Law and Order, while failing to realize he’s actually been cast as an officer in Mayberry.
His performance is laugh-out-loud funny. What makes his performance even more impressive is the fact that he still feels as though he’s acting in the same film as the rest of the cast. He’s able to be both the broad, comic relief and not make the broad comedy feel disparate from the rest of the film’s plot machinations. It’s a fantastic performance in a film stuffed full of fantastic performances.
It’s also important to note that the dialogue, although the original Shakespearean text is preserved, is easy for the Shakespeare-unitiated to understand. Whedon and the cast ensures the film is approachable for a wide audience.
Joss Whedon’s film may be light, airy, and lacking the heavy thematic material that traditionally guides the most respected of Shakespeare’s plays (although there is a definite commentary relating to female inequality that Whedon ensures is a part of the film), but Whedon clearly loves dialogue and verbal dexterity, as indicated by the best moments of his television series and the best moments of The Avengers. Here, he and his cast make the dialogue feel fresh and lovely and modernly romantic. When a film is this effortlessly charming, why even try to resist it?
Have you seen the film? Did you love it? Hate it? Let us know in the comments!