Shot at the director’s home over twelve days amidst post-production for The Avengers, Joss Whedon’s version of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing was rehearsed and honed during various afternoon reads over the years. It’s a stylish take that cleverly transposes the text into a contemporary-seeming world of Californian house parties and cliquish gossip, while remaining a credible version of the comedy. The tone of the source material has echoes of Whedon’s own trademark banter, and that play’s witty words are kept intact for this latest transition to the screen.
Considering the restrictive, DIY approach to making the film, and that it was apparently made for love of the material and the experience rather than any intended distribution, it is pleasing to find that Much Ado About Nothing offers noteworthy development of Whedon’s directorial skills. In retaining Shakespeare’s original dialogue, the filmmaker more famous for his screenwriting is forced to rely more on aesthetics to imprint his own distinct mark on the material. The film is full of inventive framing, in terms of both shot compositions and use of the house’s interiors and exteriors, and often gorgeous uses of celestial light in its black-and-white cinematography; the film’s appearance is particularly impressive given cinematographer Jay Hunter has mostly worked in reality television. With the monochrome look, the material’s banter, and the suits and dresses given to the performers, the film feels like it’s aiming to be a screwball comedy version of the play, and the approach works quite successfully.
It should be mentioned that Whedon does still make some screenplay changes where he can, even if he doesn’t change the spoken words. The idea of Benedick and Beatrice having had a prior fling isn’t a radical departure from some theatre productions of the play, but the concept makes its first cinematic appearance here; the film’s opening, silent scene is Beatrice awakening to Benedick having fled from the scene of their night of passion. Additionally, Whedon also changes the gender of one relatively important player. A collaborator with Don John (here played by Sean Maher), the character of Conrad is traditionally portrayed as a male henchman. In Whedon’s film, it’s Conrade (Riki Lindhome) and she’s quite explicitly figured as the villain’s lover.
Largely made up of Whedon project alumni, the film’s casting thankfully avoids a smug or knowing feel thanks to the strength of the performances; it never feels like there’s anyone who can’t deliver the dialogue well but is still in this because they’re friends with the director and wanted to help with a passion project. The effective leads Alexis Denisof and Amy Acker, as Benedick and Beatrice, are the obvious standouts, handling the spiky romantic sparring in glorious fashion. Though it doesn’t reinvent the text, this idiosyncratic, fun version of Much Ado About Nothing might just be the best cinematic version to date.