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Much Ado About Nothing

To One Thing Constant Never

Much Ado About Nothing

No stars. Black-and-white, high-definition video. No set designers because the movie is set in the director’s actual Los Angeles home. Obviously, not the usual elements of a movie adaptation of a Shakespeare comedy. Nor the way Hollywood productions are assembled. It’s more redolent of financially flimsy independent work. But those Desperation Row movies don’t customarily get distributed by Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions, as Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing is. Of course, virtually by definition, indies lack the reputational heft Whedon can summon.

He decided, in about a hundredth of the time it takes a standard Hollywood project to get green-lighted, to squeeze this movie in as he was putting the finishing touches on last year’s market monster, The Avengers, and before beginning preparations for that film’s sequel. So there’s an almost larky, let’s-put-on-a-show aura to it. But don’t let that mislead you. This is unmistakably the product of old—and young—pros seriously engaged, no matter the deviant circumstances. And the results are gracefully adept. The picture could serve as a very nice little contrast to the industry’s dominating, laboriously contrived and bloated products. It’s also something of a contrast to Kenneth Branagh’s 20-year-old, gilded, and star-encrusted version of the play.

Much Ado About Nothing’s quintessential rom-com credentials, based on the mutually complicated dance toward marriage of its lead characters, Benedick (Alexis Denisof) and Beatrice (Amy Acker), must have appealed to Whedon. But if Shakespeare made things easier for him he also encumbered him. Much Ado About Nothing is not among the first rank of the playwright’s comedies. Sixty years ago, the British scholar Charles Joseph Sisson noted that the play’s other narrative, involving the more solemnly interrupted romance of young Hero (Jillian Morgese) and Claudio (Fran Kranz) is a rather mechanical diversion that is necessarily resolved in hope and sweetness, despite its inclusion of an Iago-esque villain.

In Much Ado About Nothing, the play is sometimes less the thing than is the language. Where Shakespeare may have hinted at a history for Beatrice and Benedick, Whedon makes it palpable. Denisof and Acker handle their characters’ wounded, witchy, and amusing sparring with more than adequate aplomb and wit. The facility of the other actors’ line readings varies. Kranz’s Claudio is appropriately earnest and passionate. Morgese’s Hero seems a little inhibited by the play’s demanding language, but Clark Gregg, as Hero’s father Leonato, is assured and quietly dynamic. Nathan Fillion’s crucial comic relief as the constable Dogberry is an effective amalgam of the broad Elizabethan concept and a plodding contemporary TV cop.

Here and there, Whedon indulged in some unnecessary business or mild buffoonery, but mostly he carried this effort off with adroit control. It makes one wonder what he could accomplish if he found more time for other humanely scaled movies.

Watch the trailer for Much Ado About Nothing

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