Joss Whedon’s adaptation of MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING does something quite wonderful. Under his skillful direction, Whedon strips William Shakespeare’s play to the essentials – a man, a woman, and a love that triumphs over adversity. Gone are any supposed pretensions people may assume of the material. Add to that the natural humor of the piece and the terrific chemistry among the actors, and you have a Shakespearean adaptation that feels effortless. MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING has always been one of Shakespeare’s lighter works, but Whedon’s decisions give it relevance and he also makes everything as fun as Shakespeare intended.
Whedon isn’t dumbing it down for the masses – far from it. But he adds his characteristic rhythms and cadence to the dialogue, and the result is far more accessible than one would imagine, considering the material. I’ve never considered Shakespeare “work”, for lack of a better term, but Whedon gives us an entry point into MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING that makes it easier for those not conditioned to the dialogue. I especially loved the first scene, a wordless moment between Beatrice (Amy Acker) and Benedick (Alexis Denisof) that paints a unique stroke over the movie that I don’t remember seeing in an adaptation of the play before. It gives MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING a bit more weight than I expected, and it was a wonderful addition to the story.
Whedon relies on his stable of actors throughout his various TV shows and movies to carry the material. All of the actors and actresses involved step up – from Alexis Denisof’s turn as Benedick and Amy Acker’s lovely, heartfelt Beatrice, to Sean Maher’s conniving Don John, Fran Kranz’s naïve, earnest Claudio, and Clark Gregg’s Leonato – and all do terrific work. Denisof especially seems to be having a grand time, playing a notorious Don Juan type who meets his match in Acker’s Beatrice. Acker and Denisof, who notably worked together before in Whedon’s ANGEL series, mesh wonderfully with the material. Both are obviously having fun and their love for the play is infectious.
Whedon shot MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING on the cheap and very quickly, trusting in the material to carry over any lack of time or budget. This was the right choice – it’s not a big production like Kenneth Branagh’s version and the actors trust Whedon enough to really dig into their roles. I love how Nathan Fillion plays Dogberry the Constable like he’s in a 1980s cop movie (there’s a hilarious interrogation scene with Fillion and BUFFY’s Tom Lenk that seems to parody television cop shows perfectly). Whedon puts his own stamp on MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING, even going so far as to change the sex of one particular character which changes that scene entirely – and makes what would normally be a scene of exposition into a revealing character moment. Whedon doesn’t treat MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING as holy writ, but he does get to the emotion and meaning of the play in a way that feels natural and realistic.
It’s also very funny. This is no dry adaptation. You can tell that every actor cherishes each word of Shakespeare’s play, but they aren’t so fiercely devoted to every rhythm that they rob it of any spontaneity or wit. No, it isn’t spoken with a British accent or filmed in the Italian countryside, but there’s a zest to the performances and the direction nonetheless. This is one of Joss Whedon’s very best works, and although he’s a geek in the purest sense – the man did direct THE AVENGERS, after all – it’s obvious that Whedon’s first love is simply two people in a room, engaging with each other on the purest of levels. His love of conversation and humor is evident in every moment of MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING and while I’m happy to have Joss Whedon take me to the farthest reaches of the Marvel Universe and back, I love that he still takes the time to tell intimate stories like this as well. I hope Whedon gets his stable of actors together every other year and continues to make Shakespeare plays in his backyard.
The reason Whedon has such a huge fan following is that he never forgets that it begins with interesting characters. The characters of MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING are complicated creatures, and Whedon and the actors breathe life into them in a facile way. It is an accomplished work and I hope Whedon doesn’t get so lost among the big budget extravaganzas that he stops making movies like this.