WFTB Score: 11/20
The plot: While resting at the home of Leonato, friends Claudio and Benedick find their respective heartstrings tugged by innocent young Hero and sharp-tongued Beatrice. The party decide to have fun by sneakily inducing the quarrelsome Benedick and Beatrice to fall in love, and at least one marriage appears to be in the offing; the black-hearted Don John, however, has other ideas.
Everyone needs their downtime, so when a cadre of sharp-suited businessmen are offered respite at the home of Senor Leonato (Clark Gregg) they jump at the chance, though some are happier than others. Claudio (Fran Kranz) is enamoured of Leonato’s receptive daughter Hero (Jillian Morgese), while self-loving Benedick (Alexis Denisof) is less happy to see Hero’s cousin Beatrice (Amy Acker), a former lover who now protects herself with verbal barbs.
Surly Don John (Sean Maher), meanwhile, hates everyone and everything, and whispers poison in Claudio’s ear suggesting that Don Pedro (Reed Diamond) is wooing Hero for himself while pretending to bat for the young man. Claudio overcomes those qualms and prepares for his wedding by conspiring with Leonato and Pedro to convince Benedick that Beatrice loves her, while Hero and others do the same for Beatrice.
It all appears to work like a charm, but John’s Plan B – deceiving Claudio into watching ‘Hero’ (actually Ashley Johnson’s maid Margaret) be defiled by Borachio (Spencer Treat Clark) – throws a monumental spanner in the works and the household into disarray. Can local lawman Dogberry (Nathan Fillion) save the day? Not if his command of the English language is anything to go by.
Joss Whedon made Much Ado About Nothing, on a budget of about nothing, in twelve days while ‘resting’ from work on The Avengers. The important question is not so much ‘does it show?’ as ‘does it matter?’ and the answer, to put it very unshakespeareanly, is ‘kinda’.
In its early stages, at least, the film treads a very fine line between being spontaneous and undercooked. The decision to shoot in black and white is wise, as it prevents the film from looking too much like Joss and his mates in a home video (yes, that’s his actual house). On the other hand, until roughly the halfway mark – specifically, until Benedick and Beatrice are tricked into mutual love – the film doesn’t quite find its feet.
This opinion partially stems from a familiarity with and fondness for Kenneth Branagh’s Much Ado…, but Whedon’s version – which must be applauded for sticking to the original text – occasionally struggles for context where the 1993 movie had no such issue. We instinctively understood that Branagh, Denzel Washington et al were returning from a war; it’s not half as clear what battles these sartorially superior warriors have fought. Additionally, you’re entitled to ask why these well-heeled fellows are choosing to stay in someone else’s house for a month, or, given that some of the bedrooms evidently belong to kids, where all the children have gone.
Unlike the middling results Baz Luhrmann achieved in Romeo+Juliet, Whedon doesn’t attempt to crowbar Shakespeare’s words into meaningfulness in a modern setting. On the other hand, skating blithely over the snags doesn’t particularly help the viewer – or, one suspects, the actors – get a handle on the characters. As a result, the significance of John’s first attempt to ruin the party is somewhat lost because we’re still getting used to the relationships in play.
Still, once players and punters are both settled in, Much Ado About Nothing offers a snappy and fresh interpretation of the text, not merely capitalising on its many opportunities for banter and slapstick. We feel the cruelty of weak-minded Claudio’s treatment of Hero; we sympathise with Beatrice’s complaints about the limitations imposed by womanhood. To say that I prefer the sparks that fly from Ken and Em’s frictional spats is no criticism of either Acker or Denisof, who bring their own qualities to Benedick’s awful vanity and Beatrice’s misleadingly feisty exterior. I’m not sure we entirely needed the bedroom flashback to hammer home their former intimacy, but it’s nothing to get too excited about.
Elsewhere, performances are variable: I liked Kranz and Morgese’s callowness, the bland young lovers deliberately contrasting with their older and more cynical friends. Clark (Gregg) is authoritative and welcoming, while (Spencer Treat) Clark, of Unbreakable and Gladiator fame, shows signs of being a decent young actor. Riki Lindhome’s Conrade is adequate but little is added by the change of sex, while Maher is rather ineffectual and Reed Diamond fails to get in the swing of things at any point.
Happily, Nathan Fillion makes the part of Dogberry fly. He and his band of dim-witted deputies fit perfectly into the updated scenario, and Fillion impresses with natural comic timing. He also lets the words speak for themselves without feeling the need to gussy up the part with outrageous and obfuscating accents (hang your head, Keaton, hang your head). Tom Lenk’s Verges is also a welcome substitute for Ben Elton.
Ultimately, your preference for a film version of Much Ado About Nothing will probably depend on your mood: do you want to overheat, or would you rather chill? Branagh’s lavish movie positively radiates effervescent sunshine whereas Whedon’s minimalist treatment, with its fun, light jazz version of Sigh No More and affluent vibe, is laid-back and in all senses cool. For me, the sunshine wins every time, though for what is effectively a tea-break quickie, this film does a pretty tidy job of updating Shakespeare’s battle of wits for the 21st Century.