Expectations are a funny thing, and they almost always get the better of us. Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing is a craftily made Shakespeare adaptation with great performances all around, but you would do well to expect more Bard, less Whedon.
That Whedon was able to make this adaptation on a micro-budget, film it in 12 days over his vacation from production of The Avengers, and gather a crew and a talented cast of this caliber is nothing (ha!) short of remarkable. This isn’t the way films are made, not even indie films. So great is the success of Whedon’s experiment that it’s easy to assume the resulting film will be just as phenomenal, but it’s not. It’s a solid adaptation acted by a true ensemble, but that’s it.
For folks who have seen or read Much Ado About Nothing aren’t going to find any surprises, and those looking for Whedon trademarks will come up empty. After all, this is Whedon’s first take on material he didn’t himself write, and thus it feels very different from the rest of his work. The film is certainly very good, but it’s more Shakespeare with a pinch of Whedon, rather than Whedon with a pinch of Shakespeare; anyone who enters expecting the latter, like I did, may find their enjoyment tinged with disappointment.
That isn’t to say that the film isn’t any good, because it is. The film is very well-staged, which is impressive considering they only had one central location. Shakespeare’s plays only provide dialogue, so a director’s voice in an adaptation really comes through in the blocking. Most visual gags are invented by the players, and Whedon’s Much Ado has plenty to amuse the audience, even when the Bard’s dialogue is particularly dense. Speaking of dialogue, it’s striking that Whedon has updated the sixteenth-century play to a modern setting, yet left the dialogue unaltered. Whether motivated by a purist sensibility, or simply time constraints, the Elizabethan dialogue perhaps makes the case that the interpersonal difficulties people currently have are the interpersonal difficulties people have always had. The cast does exhibit some preliminary stumbling with the language, but after the first 30 minutes it fades into a natural groove.
The cast is the best reason to see this movie. For fans of Whedon’s repeat players, this is fan service of the highest kind. Alexis Denisof and Amy Acker own the film as Benedick and Beatrice, lending themselves to comedy and drama with equal weight. The rest of the cast doesn’t have a blight among them, with Clark Gregg exuding genial authority as Leonato, Fran Kranz successfully pulling off leading man Claudio, and Nathan Fillion showing up to steal the show as the Bard’s token comic relief character Dogberry. The normally mild-mannered Sean Maher, however, is the biggest surprise among the cast, with his expertly exuded villainy as Don Jon. Fans of internet comedy duo BriTANick will also be pleased to see them turn up as the First and Second Watchmen. A dinner party scene features even more cameos by Whedon regulars, so keep your eyes peeled.
Technically, while the film’s short production period is impressive, there are moments where it shows in the final product. While Whedon is able to get multiple varied locations out of one house (he shot Much Ado in his own home), the cinematography does come up short. Lacking, I suspect, a steadicam, the film relies too much on handheld shots to the point of overuse. A dinner party near the start of the film is gorgeously staged and framed, perhaps enough to be one of my favorite sequences for cinematography this year, but the film as a whole is noticeably inconsistent in this regard. However, the score, composed by Whedon himself, is more than up to par, heightening neutral moments and never intruding on the more dramatic ones. Whedon also covered two of Shakespeare’s sonnets for the soundtrack, “Sigh No More” and “Heavily”. Featuring lilting vocals by Maurissa Tancharoen, the songs are beautiful. Hopefully they’ll wet our tongues as we wait the long wait for the sequel to Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog.
Overall, although Much Ado About Nothing has flaws, I believe they had more to do with my expectations than they did the film itself. Whedonites may not find his voice very present here, but they should be more than delighted with the veteran cast of Whedon’s old collaborators. And while the film doesn’t showcase Whedon’s usual style, it remains a perfectly enjoyable Shakespeare adaptation, an intriguing experiment in micro-budget filmmaking, and a wonderful showcase of a very talented ensemble.
Verdict: Movie Win