Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing succeeds to the degree you’re willing to accept its genial “Let’s put on a show” vibe. Shakespeare’s play is famous for its wit and romance, and Whedon’s skills with both make him a nice fit for the material, but as an actual film, the final product is only somewhat successful. Whedon shot the film in under two weeks at his house and employed a stable of actors he’s used several times over in various TV and film projects, and there’s no doubt he’s got a love for the play. But the film’s execution raises a number of questions that Whedon can’t, or won’t, answer. The action is updated to the present day yet the language is the same as it was 400 years ago. The logistical reasons are clear — it’s cheaper to have your cast wear regular clothes and talk Elizabethan than the other way around — but the narrative ones are never addressed. Similarly, while they play’s conceits could be justified in its original setting, it’s less clear in the film why, say, the villain is allowed to spend so much time milling about with people who have openly avowed their distrust of him. Whedon makes a few nods here and there to modern life (characters have cell phones and luxury sedans), but beyond that, he doesn’t so much update the story as exhume it, pulling it from the tomb of history and dragging it around a Santa Monica estate. It’s a worthy experiment, with all the tension that entails.
The story, set at the home of the wealthy Leonato (Clark Gregg), revolves around three interwoven plots: the bickering anti-courtship between Benedick (Alexis Denisof) and Beatrice (Amy Acker), who are tricked into professing their secret love for each other; the youthful romance of Claudio (Fran Kranz) and Hero (Jillian Morgese); and the interfering machinations of Don John (Sean Maher), who seeks to disrupt the happiness of those around him for no reason other than his own general boredom. In one of the film’s glitchy moments, John is introduced when he steps out of a car with the rest of the arrival party and we see he’s handcuffed. They cut him free, though, and move on with the action. His deeds, whatever they may have been, are never explained, and we never get a good reason for why he’s in the mix. It’s John’s schemes that drive much of the narrative’s drama — he’s resolutely determined to plant seeds of doubt and hate in the minds of the young lovers — yet Whedon never quite finds a way to sell John’s villainy as anything other than contrivance. A huge part of this is Maher’s performance, which is as plastic and unyielding as anything he did on Whedon’s “Firefly” or its follow-up Serenity. But part of it also feels like what happens when you’re so close to the source material, so in love with your memories of it, that you can’t quite see what might not work. Whedon has far more success with the rest of the film, meaning the Claudio-Hero moments when John’s not around and every bit of the Benedick-Beatrice story line. Whedon could probably have made a short film that was just the latter, with Denisof and Acker and the supporting players, and not lost a step.
The love-hate-love beats of Benedick and Beatrice’s play out perfectly thanks to the superb casting of Denisof and Acker. Breathing life into Shakespeare’s words is notoriously difficult for any actor, and not everyone on screen here can get away with it. (Morgese’s Hero, for instance, rattles off her dialogue in a mealy monotone stripped of almost all inflection.) Yet Denisof is wonderful as the swaggering man made humble and even awkward by the realization that he has feelings for the woman he’s long declared an enemy, and Acker is equally stunning, moving from prickly to vulnerable and back again as she and Denisof circle each other. Theirs is the story that gets the only real addition to the narrative, in the form of a wordless opening scene that shows Benedick dressing in Beatrice’s room early one morning and slipping out without saying goodbye. They mold Shakespeare’s language with their bodies, never overdoing it, always believable, always understandable, always connecting.
The rest of the cast falls at different places along the spectrum, with Denisof and Acker at one end and Maher at the unfortunate other. (Admittedly, he’s better than Keanu Reeves was in the same role in Kenneth Branagh’s 1993 film version, but this seems the meanest praise possible.) As Don Pedro, the prince who’s mostly running the show, Reed Diamond is enjoyable and believable. Kranz is a nice fit for Claudio, too, bringing the right mix of sweetness and occasional jealous anger. Nathan Fillion is a standout, though, as Dogberry, a constable oblivious to his constant misjudgments and malapropisms. He nails the deadpan humor of the part so well that you realize just how sluggish everyone around him has been. Again, that’s the film as a whole: a collection of parts, some of which work better than others, and some of which don’t quite know how to fit. The same issue plagues the photography, which is a soupy black-and-white meant to convey elegance but that often simply feels like an affectation meant to hide the pedestrian nature of some of the performances.
It’s telling that, peripheral touches aside, the only new or “updated” moment comes with that opening scene that lets us know what Benedick and Beatrice once briefly meant to each other, and that will provide a perfect set-up for what’s to come. It’s the kind of believable moment that shows Whedon realizing that adaptations like his will have to bend the book’s spine a little if they want to stand on their own. The moment sticks out even more when weighted against moments in the text where, say, a woman wishes to be a man so she could take action against those who’ve wronged her, or in which people are courted and traded among marriage partners like baseball cards. It’s only in the heat of certain moments like professions of love and forgiveness that Whedon finally connects the specificity of a classical text with the universality of the emotions involved. Put another way: Whedon puts on a nice play, but he’s at his best when he remembers to just tell a story.