A film review by Craig J. Koban October 31, 2013  


2013, PG-13, 107  mins.


Alexis Denisof as Benedick  /  Amy Acker as Beatrice  /  Nathan Fillion as Dogberry  /  Ashley Johnson as Margaret  /  Sean Maher as Don John  /  Spencer Treat Clark as Borachio  /  Clark Gregg as Leonato  /  Fran Kranz as Claudio  /  Tom Lenk as Verges  /  Emma Bates as Ursula  /  Reed Diamond as Don Pedro

Written and directed by Joss Whedon /  Based on the play by William Shakespeare

Adapting a play by Shakespeare just might be one of the bolder artistic choices that writer/director Joss Whedon could have possibly done in his post-AVENGERS career.  

Even more intrinsically fascinating is his approach: Film it all in lush black and white, in a modern day setting, over the course of less than two weeks, and inside his very own Santa Monica home.  Ultimately, the more austere scholars of the Bard’s work will probably groan at the prospect of yet another film appropriation of one of his most cherished works being done in an anachronistic haze, but one of the more sublime pleasures of Whedon’s MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING is its relative looseness of approach.  The film has a carefree, breezy, and spontaneous aura about it while maintaining faithfulness to the original prose.  All of this lends itself well to the underlining humor of Shakespeare’s most inviting and well-known comedies. 

For me, I’ve always been an appreciator of Kenneth Branagh’s more literal 1993 adaptation of MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING, which still stands the test of time even twenty years later.  I think that Whedon wisely does not engage in any vain attempt at one-upping that cherished film, but instead tries to do something altogether unique and fresh on his own.  I think that the decision to film this version in black and white is to evoke the classic Hollywood screwball farces of yesteryear, and the visual look here informs and compliments the inherent mischievous humor of Shakespeare’s play.  Better yet is the notion is that this film allows Whedon to come outside of the Hollywood blockbuster shell that he has placed himself within as of late: MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING proves that he can make small, low budget, low key, and character and – yes – dialogue driven works.  



The overall plot of this film iteration is largely unchanged from the original text; granted, obvious scenes have been excised for the necessity of pacing and running time.  For those completely unfamiliar with the play, MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING is a romantic comedy that ostensibly focuses on two sets of couples.  There is Beatrice (the lovely and naturally beautiful Amy Acker) and Benedick (Alexis Denisof), who outwardly display ample antagonism towards each other, but inwardly share a deep seeded love that is only brought to the forefront via their friends.  The other couple is Claudio (Fran Kranz) and Hero (Jillian Morgese), both of whom seem to be headed towards marital bliss.  Unfortunately for them, the nefarious Don John (Sean Maher) makes his presence felt and interferes with their passion, leaving Claudio abandoning Hero on their wedding day.  Thankfully for all, a bumbling constable named Dogberry (Nathan Fillion) tries to restore order and uncover the true nature of Don John. 

Thankfully – and aside from Jay Hunter’s lush black and white cinematography – Whedon wisely abandons any attempts at overly stylizing his film, which could have easily become a needless distraction.  Instead, he allows the sprightly and very game performers and Shakespeare’s iconic language rule the day.  I think that the fundamental key to adapting any Shakespeare play to the silver screen lies with a director’s ability to make his words feel accessible and comprehensible, and to that extent Whedon has succeeded.  More importantly, though, Whedon also captures the play's sense of joyous and eager enthusiasm.  Intriguingly, he manages to find a way to navigate through the story’s two distinct plotlines with a casual and free-flowing approach that rarely feels haphazardly thrown together.   

The performances here are, of course, crucial to Whedon’s overall approach, and when some of the actors come off more as novices with Shakespeare’s words than others, they all manage to ebb and flow together as a rather wonderful ensemble.  Amy Acker is easily the standout here, as she evokes an ethereal glow and sense of awkward charm in Beatrice that makes her so inviting as a character.  Her scenes with Alexis Denisof have a spunky and sly allure and both actors know how to harness the dialogue and make their verbal sparring matches really shine.  Perhaps my favorite addiction to the cast is Nathon Fillion as the constable, who perhaps gives the funniest performance in the film; he brings out his character's slapstick physical hijinks without it coming off as overbearingly obtrusive while, at the same time, making Dogberry an eager minded and sincere figure that’s just out to right wrongs…even though he awkwardly fumbles his way through it.  A little bit of Fillion goes an awful long, long way in this film. 

I can certainly see how some are a bit uncomfortable with Whedon’s choices here.  I myself had initial reservations about the project going in; on paper, it seems more like an experimental home movie by the director with his industry BFFs than a worthwhile and significant entry in the Shakespearian film canon.  Then there is the rather large shadow of Branagh’s critically lauded and revered 1993 incarnation, which certainly will sully the expectations any appreciator of the film going into Whedon’s effort.  And, uh huh, this new MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING has mobile phones, guns, and other contemporary trappings that might have many in the audience modestly cry foul.  If anything, wouldn’t the bolder choice of Whedon have been to make a period specific adaptation on a tight micro-budget? 

Alas, these nitpicks are ultimately much ado about…nothing.  Whedon seems to not only have a fundamental understanding of the original source material, but also a keen knack for extrapolating both the subtle and broad comedy from the play, which is a tricky task for any filmmaker.  Perhaps to his credit, Whedon displays great enthusiasm for the inherent material, which helps override any overt criticisms that his MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING is nothing more than a mild career detour/curiosity piece for him.  Despite the overall and obvious modesty of the aesthetic approach here, this version of Shakespeare’s 16th Century romcom is a bona fide and fairly worthwhile addition to the long-standing genre of films based on his works.  

Best of all, Whedon makes Shakespeare hip, fun, and inviting.  That’s no easy feat. 

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