How do you follow up the biggest blockbuster in cinematic history? One crammed full of superheroes and special effects and big name actors? A film that epitomizes Hollywood in all its glory and all its faults?
If you're Joss Whedon you take your week vacation, invite a bunch of friends over to your house and you film Shakespeare. This, in case you were wondering, is why Joss Whedon is awesome.
[This review was originally posted as part of our South by Southwest 2013 coverage. It has been reposted to coincide with the theatrical release of Much Ado About Nothing.]
Much Ado About Nothing Director: Joss Whedon Rating: PG-13 Release Date: June 7, 2013 (limited); wider release June 21, 2013
Since I enjoy Shakespeare's comedies more than his dramas, because I'm uncultured and such, Much Ado About Nothing is my favorite of his plays (followed closely by A Midsummer Night's Dream). I've seen it on stage a few times and, of course, watched the Kenneth Branagh version a few times over (Keanu ain't that bad). So the idea of Joss Whedon gathering together all his favorite actors and making my favorite Shakespearean play into a movie was better than almost everything ever.
It's easy to report that Shakespeare's writing still stands the test of time, and a pleasure to report that Whedon has put together a fantastic interpretation of the play. Shooting entirely in black and white and in his own home over the course of a week in what the cast has basically described as a party, Whedon creatively interprets Much Ado About Nothing into a darker and more sexually charged story than we're use to. While the comedy points are definitely the main thrust of the movie, Whedon take s a lot more care to develop the character's motivations and interactions while updating the play to a modern context (though it could have easily taken place at any time).
I'll eschew plot description since you should already know the classic tale of absurd misunderstanding and quick witted dialog. In case you were confused there's plenty of great lines here that are still hilarious despite having been written many, many years ago. Whedon imbibes them with new life, however, turning even some of the most banal scenes into either comic wonders or powerhouse dramatic sequences. There are some seriously impressively done scenes throughout the film that lend a new depth to the play and a bit of fun.
It helps that the cast is clearly having a blast. Comprised of a bunch of Whedon's favorite actors from his plethora of films and shows (Nathan Fillion, Amy Acker, Alexis Denisof, Fran Kranz), it's basically a walk down Whedon memory lane. Most of the cast does admirably, though for some it's pretty clear that Shakespeare isn't their forte. The most surprising successes are Fran Kranz, who busts out of his typecast nerdiness into a surprisingly strong romantic lead; and Nathan Fillion, who is beyond hilarious in his role as a bumbling police office. Acker and Denisof are also perfectly matched as the constantly bickering Beatrice and Benedick. The most disappointing is Sean Maher who doesn't seem to get comfortable with the evil Don John until halfway through the film, though he does get one of the best sight gags.
It's not all his fault, though. The movie was shot in a week, andthat is pretty clear. It's a simple fact that you need a bit more time to get Shakespeare down, especially with the majority of the cast having never performed it professionally. What this leads to is it being very obvious which scenes were shot early and which were shot later. The cast clearly got into a rhythm as the shoot went on and it makes some scenes far better than others. It's hard to fault them for not mastering Shakespeare right away, and once they do get into a groove and during some of Whedon's more impressively done scenes, it is easily some of the most enjoyable Shakespeare you'll see. The downside is that the movie never really goes above being enjoyable to being truly great, but considering the time frame and DIY nature it probably was never meant to.
What's obvious here is that Joss Whedon is a great director, Shakespeare is a great writer and if you get a cast together that really clicks you're going to make a fun movie. While it's easy to interpret Shakespeare in a variety of ways that I wouldn't deign to call any version of a play the definitive version, this is definitely one you'll want to see.
Hubert Vigilla: There's a strange and undeniable joy in Much Ado About Nothing. From scene to scene, from beginning to end, there's a sense that everyone involved in the production was having a great time. The 12-day shoot was probably more like a 12-day party, and I almost got the sense that the production embodied the old-fashioned ethos of those early Judy Garland/Mickey Rooney films: let's get our buddies together and make a gosh darn movie!
The two couples -- Beatrice (Amy Acker) & Benedick (Alexis Denisof), Hero (Jillian Morgese) & Claudio (Fran Kranz) -- are well cast and serve as solid examples of Shakespeare's parallelism and contrast when romantic pairs are used. Nathan Fillion bumbles about and steals his scenes when Dogberry arrives. I think my only gripe is that some of the score sounds like it's from a made-for-TV movie, but even this helps feed into the quick and playful spirit of the film. Much Ado About Nothing is a source of constant delight. 81 -- Great