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There is a class warrior part of myself, based somewhat on jealousy, which wants to be annoyed at the idea of beautiful, rich white people staging a black-and-white indie version of a Shakespeare comedy in the mansion of one of the hottest directors in Hollywood. On the surface, the entire production is an exercise in pretension, a creation of boredom and wealth, the product of an impromptu but lavish party over the course of a long weekend. As much as I love the Bard, part of me wants to hate Joss Whedon’s “Much Ado About Nothing.” There is already the exceptional 1993 film version of the play featuring Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh, a production that is near perfect in execution. A range of other Shakespeare plays could use the touch of a director like Whedon. Yet, despite my misgivings and preconceptions, I loved the film. It’s a faithful, lighthearted, and fun adaptation that works well in spite of what appears to be simple and limited staging.
For those unfamiliar with the works of Shakespeare, “Much Ado About Nothing” is as good a starting point as any. Much of the language is straightforward and conversational, the plot easy to follow, and it remains as funny now as it was when it was written. Shakespeare tends to be as boring as the cast makes it, and in the case of Joss Whedon’s adaptation, the cast perform their roles both naturally and believably. Of particular note is Amy Acker as Beatrice, who injects an abundance of fire and wit into the role. Next to Kate from “The Taming of the Shrew,” Beatrice is arguably one of the most recognizable female roles in all of Shakespeare’s collected plays. Acker steps into the part as if it is a second skin, a far departure from some of her more mousy roles in the Whedon universe. Her foil, the slick-tongued Benedick (Alexis Denisoff), doesn’t quite have the same spark. Beatrice has the upper hand in every exchange. The chemistry between the characters doesn’t quite work as well as it should. This may be simply because I have a preference for Branagh—not a fair comparison by any stretch of the imagination but one that is impossible not to make. On the whole, Denisoff performs admirably and does the part justice, as does the rest of the cast.
Which cast, of course, is a cavalcade of familiar faces from the television shows and films in the Whedon portfolio. Actors from “Firefly,” “Buffy,” “Angel,” “Dollhouse,” and “The Avengers” are well represented. Directors have long gravitated towards using a specific stable of actors—look no further than the films of Kevin Smith or Judd Apatow. There’s a certain comfort between the players that is essential in creating a film like this one. The friendship between the actors spills over into the dialogue, making the conversations seem spontaneous and engaging, rather than stilted and old. The 1993 film felt much the same—the only difference being the overall production values. Italy is much more scenic than Whedon’s backyard. However, Nathan Fillion as the bumbling constable Dogberry is one notable improvement over the 1993 version, being more intelligible and affably clueless than the Beetlejuice-esque performance of Michael Keaton. Ultimately, it’s an ensemble cast that makes the film enjoyable.
As an adaptation, this “Much Ado About Nothing” is excellent. Shakespeare on film is not easy—the language alone can be a challenge for both the actors and the viewers. There are frightfully few film adaptations that really entertain in a universal way. It would be nice if Whedon’s moderate success with “Much Ado About Nothing” is replicated every few years or so with other plays. I would love to see “The Comedy of Errors” or “Twelfth Night” done well for the big screen. Shakespeare doesn’t need a big, CGI-filled production like the recent Julie Taymor adaptation of “The Tempest.” The story is the words—and words without thoughts never to heaven go.
Editor’s note: “Much Ado About Nothing” has ended its short run at the Majestic 12, but will shortly be available in other formats.