Scholars do not include Much Ado About Nothing in their list of Shakespeare’s “problem plays,” but any adaptation of the work must tangle with one especially tricky moment. Between the merry war and Dogberry’s hapless attempt at elocution, there is a raw slut-shaming scene in which a woman is humiliated in front of her family. The tricky part is how she still ends up in the arms of the man who shamed her. Joss Whedon’s modern adaptation addresses the problem head-on, overcoming the unlikely reversal with strong acting and genuine emotion. Despite his science fiction pedigree, Whedon’s mastery is in ensembles, not genre, so it’s no surprise he handles Shakespeare so well.
Messina is Sicily’s least interesting city — I once wasted an entire day there where I was so bored I ending up reading a Dan Brown novel — so it’s prudent that Whedon chose a space eminently more comfortable: his California home. Whether it’s through his gorgeous garden or his airy bedrooms, Whedon’s house creates intimacy that resembles theater.
A wordless prologue sets up the cheerfully abusive relationship between Benedick (Alexis Denisof) and Beatrice (Amy Acker): after what appears to be a one night stand, he leaves the bed without so much as a note. They’re understandably skeptical of love, while Claudio (Fran Kranz) courts the lovely Hero (Jillian Morgese). Her father Leonato (Clark Gregg) couldn’t be more pleased, and the matchmaker Don Pedro (Reed Diamond) has clearly done his job well. It’s all peaches until the loathsome Don John (Sean Maher) tricks Claudio into thinking Hero is a harlot.
The marriage scene, in which Claudio confronts Hero About her alleged infidelity, plays out with measured fury. Putting Franz in the role is a masterstroke: you may recognize him as the stoner nerd from Cabin in the Woods, and here he uses the same cracked voice to articulate his grief. His harsh language is more wounded than previous iterations of the play, so it’s slightly more plausible when Hero jumps back into his arms.
Prior to that scene, Whedon deftly introduces all the important characters so even when we don’t precisely understand their relation to each other, the conflict naturally brews. Maher does not have many scenes as Don John, yet he’s just enough of an asshole that he hangs over the lightness of the two pairs of lovers. In an interesting choice, Whedon casts Riki Lindhome (one half of the comedy duo Garfunkel and Oates) to play Conrade, Don John’s underling. He’s flirting with her as he lays out his nefarious plan, so the over-sharing is given a modern, plausible context. It’s a small choice, but an important one.
Whedon films Much Ado About Nothing like it’s an endless party, and as a result it is never jarring when we move from one set of the characters to the other. The characters are constantly drinking: just another glass of wine, or a celebratory toast of liquor. We want to join the boozy fray — all the dudes look sharp in their suits, and the women are both sophisticated and sexy — and the visual elegance, including the crisp black and white photography, forces us to grasp Shakespeare’s dense prose better. His writing demands close attention, and all the actors sound as if they grasp all the nuance of what their characters are saying. Denisof in particular has fun with Benedick, a romantic who aspires to be a heartless bastard.
But for all its mastery of language, the movie works best in terms of physical comedy. There are two important scenes in which Benedick and Beatrice literally stagger as they discover their mutual attraction, and the actors adore their chance to go from stuck-up to silly. The scene with Benedick holds back a little — I’ve seen a production of Much Ado where he practically turns into a clown — but the actors are nonetheless gifted physical comedians. Nathan Fillion shows up late, but his silly, hyper-masculine presence injects energy into the production where it needs it most. He’s the rare actor who can get a laugh simply by how he stands (Bill Murray is the only other who can), and his idiotic lines are icing on the hunky man-cake.
Expectations could not have been higher for Whedon when The Avengers was in production. He effectively had four franchises in his hands, and he handled it like any shrewd screenwriter would: instead of a traditional action movie, he constructed a dialogue-based comedy with really good special effects. The movie was a smashing success, and Much Ado About Nothing is a natural progression: it’s a palette-cleanser because in it, Whedon could work with friends on a modest budget. We’re lucky that his method of relaxing is so endlessly creative (he even composed the film’s score, which is simple but catchy). This is a reminder that Shakespeare does not have to be a cultural vegetable: his comedy is (mostly) timeless because we’ll never stop being surprised by who we fall in love with, or how.