TIFF 2012: ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ captures the wit, charm, and drama of Shakespeare’s classic

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Much Ado About Nothing
Directed by Joss Whedon
Adapted by Joss Whedon from the William Shakespeare play
USA, 2012

Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing is perhaps one of the most delightful romantic comedies ever written. Its tale of sparring and swooning love, betrayal, and redemption is timeless and, when done well, can leave audiences catching their breath and rolling in the aisles in equal measure. Joss Whedon has had a good year, with first the surprise success of Cabin in the Woods and then the smash hit that is The Avengers, but adapting your own work and tackling Shakespeare require very different artistic muscles. Filmed in black and white at Whedon’s home over the course of just two weeks and starring a cast mainly drawn from Whedon’s friends and former collaborators, rather than any sizeable names, Much Ado About Nothing is certainly a passion project. More than that, though, it’s a love letter to storytelling, relationships, and artistic inspiration. It’s the film that reinvigorated Whedon creatively after the grind of The Avengers and, hopefully, it’s only the beginning of smaller-scale filmmaking from a director who’s shown he can work both inside and outside of the system.

Any production of Much Ado About Nothing must rise or fall on the strength of the two central roles, Beatrice (here, Amy Acker) and Benedick (Alexis Denisof). They’re one of the all-time great literary couples and require tour-de-force performances from both to make the show work. Acker and Denisof slip into their roles with ease, bringing the necessary wit, intelligence, and intensity. Acker is particularly impressive, layering fragility and vulnerability underneath Beatrice’s characteristic strength and vivacity, and Denisof embraces Benedick’s goofier and hilariously self-obsessed moments with utter abandon.

The lead characters are rounded out by a supporting cast full of excellent performances. Fans of Firefly and Castle will enjoy Nathan Fillion’s highly entertaining turn as Dogberry. The buddy-cop duo of Fillion and Tom Lenk (as Verges) keep the laughs coming and sustain the momentum during their somewhat meandering subplot. Fran Kranz is great as Claudio, showing more range than his previous roles in Cabin in the Woods and Dollhouse allowed, and Sean Maher makes more of the evil Don John than one expects from the often two-dimensional character.

Joss Whedon is most known for his writing, so tackling not only a non-original script, but a beloved classic, is a definite test, and one he passes with flying colors. Whedon is also known for his humor and his ability to balance large ensemble casts and both skills serve him well here. Though he sticks with Shakespeare’s original text, Whedon peppers in additional laughs by playing with the timing, the setting, and by filling the background action with entertaining reactions from the supporting cast. Barring a few more medieval moments (it’s hard to get around the misogyny of a few of the play’s later moments), the characters feel utterly modern in their interactions and relationships and Whedon brings out these universal elements without losing sight of Shakespeare’s vision and voice.

As with most Shakespeare adaptations, certain aspects of the original have been altered to fit the director’s overall aesthetic. These are mostly superficial, such as the modern setting and clothes and swapping out swords for guns and parchment for tablets, but they do allow an extra gag or two. The film also features Whedon’s first score; its sparse, jazzy notes add to the overall feel well, though a late sequence is hampered by its pop-y soundtrack. The most substantive change is the casting of Riki Lindhome (of Garfunkel and Oates fame) as Conrade, a typically male character. Not only does this provide a female antagonist and a more interesting context for some of Don John’s monologues, but it gives a priceless visual or two towards the end of the film, when Lindhome gets the chance to play off of Lenk and Fillion. Though it does take a while to adjust to the contrast between the dialogue and the setting, in the end Whedon gains more, through naturalistic performances and contemporary body language, than he loses in resetting the play.

Much Ado About Nothing is a successful adaptation of Shakespeare’s classic (which stands shoulder to shoulder with Branagh’s well-received 1993 version), an interesting departure from well-loved writer/director Joss Whedon, and a showcase for several underappreciated and undercast actors, but more than that, it’s an entertaining, moving, and funny film, one that audiences should absolutely seek out once it’s released.

Kate Kulzick

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