Film Review: Much Ado About Nothing

Joss Whedon's minty-fresh adaptation turns his team of quick-witted TV actors on Shakespeare's most durable comedy and comes up a winner.

As with any modern-dress Shakespeare play, there is going to be some audience confusion resulting from transplanting the Bard’s baroque and time-specific text to settings where it simply makes no sense. That problem crops up from time to time in Joss Whedon’s otherwise sparkling take on this dependable old warhorse of a mistaken-identity comedy—without which decades’ worth of sitcoms wouldn’t have had much to go on—which he transplants from the castles of Italy to modern-day Southern California. In short: If everybody is dressed in crisp sport jackets, eating cupcakes, and hopping out of black town cars, why then all the bowing to aristocrats and hyperventilating about duels and honor?

Ultimately, this is no great issue, as Whedon doesn’t modernize anything but the outfits and furniture. While cleaving away some of Shakespeare’s more dragging plot points, Whedon hews to the original text. He also lets the plot breathe and move at its own quick pace, trusting the audience not to require the anxious pushiness of Kenneth Branagh’s 1993 version. This refusal to juice the material with gimmickry pays out handsomely, as Whedon’s crackerjack cast, drawn mainly from his troupe of TV actors, spins as fine a web of delicate comedy as will grace movie screens this year.

Although the cast is filled with superb performances, particularly from The Avengers’ Clark Gregg as Leonato (somehow Gregg’s everyman persona works just fine for a nobleman), the best of the bunch here is Amy Acker. She plays the headstrong and marriage-phobic Beatrice with a sparkling wit that generations of stage actresses have often failed to grasp. Alexis Denisof makes for a playfully slapstick-prone Benedick, the man she can’t stop mocking and so (just like in the thousands of romances that have followed) is destined to fall in love with. The two of them throw off enough of a sparkle that it’s hard to follow with much interest the potentially fatal romantic misunderstanding between Hero (Jillian Morgese) and Claudio (Fran Kranz) that drives the story’s darker developments. Even less of concern are all the machinations being put into effect by Don John (Sean Maher), the sullen bastard whose desire to make Claudio think Hero has been unfaithful to him is even harder to decipher than in most productions.

Almost giving Acker a run for her money is Nathan Fillion. As Dogberry, the asinine night watchman who almost by accident uncovers Don John’s nefarious plot, Fillion’s daft delivery is a fearsome work of deadpan. His scenes here are not only the film’s funniest, but they echo Bruce Campbell’s more deliberately dunderheaded work, and make one wish there were more room for deadpan masters like Fillion in modern film.

Whedon’s hand is more certain in Much Ado About Nothing with the writing than with the directing of his actors. That’s where the depths of his comedic craft can really come to bear. As a director, he’s less sure-footed. The clean, black-and-white cinematography ably masks the film’s miniscule budget (Whedon shot it over 12 days in his Santa Monica home), but a few touches don’t quite gel, like the forgettable songs and a wispy visual palette that calls to mind a high-end catalog. These are minor complaints, though, serving mostly to remind us that Whedon will never be Baz Luhrmann. And both film and literature will be all the richer for it.