Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing is a film that reads very much like the director’s love letter to the art of directing. While miraculously leaving the majority of the film’s Shakespearian source material intact, Whedon updates it to a modern setting, recontextualizes the main love story and even gender-bends a minor character, all the while showcasing a wit and humour every bit as characteristic of his work as if the actors were speaking Whedon’s own words.
For those unfamiliar with the play, the story follows the antics surrounding the beginnings of two relationships: the tentative romantic stumbling between Hero and Claudio providing the main plot and conflict while the much more combative wooing of Beatrice and Benedick becomes the source of the comic relief in the play.
Hero and Claudio’s burgeoning relationship is complicated by the machinations of Don John, who sets events in motion to besmirch Hero’s good name and break up her engagement with Count Claudio. All of this takes place during a week of drunken revelry at the home of Leonitas, the father of Hero and uncle to Beatrice.
Bathos is the name of the game in Joss Whedon’s newest and most Shakespearean film to date, and despite the script being almost entirely unchanged from the original play, Whedon lends it a humour and an energy that is quintessentially his own.
The film’s greatest comedic strength is in its inability to take itself seriously. The story of the play is too ridiculous, too over-the-top to make for a straight-faced adaptation, and Whedon does not go to any pains to try. Instead, he makes great use of scenery and timing to deflate the false sense of gravitas the characters try to lend themselves. Claudio mournfully contemplates what he believes is his betrayal by a friend while floating in the pull, wearing a snorkel and holding a martini glass. Benedick laments the ever-shrinking pool of men his age remaining bachelors while he sits down and hunches over in a child’s chair beside a giant dollhouse. And scene after scene depict the characters partaking of mass amounts of alcohol, instantly rendering the plot of the film a great deal more believable.
The only weakness in the film comes about directly from a place of weakness within the play which Whedon seems unable to rectify in his vision of the work. Benedick challenges Claudio to a duel for his insult to Hero, but immediately after informing Beatrice of the fact they are presented with the news that Don John’s plot has all been revealed and the duel need not take place.
This overblown and ultimately unsatisfying sequence of events is one that Whedon seems to have struggled in his presentation of. Though Beatrice’s request that Benedick kill Claudio seems as absurd as many of the earlier comedic moments, it is played completely straight, so the resolution seems not like another in a series of comedic deflations but an actual interruption of a key storyline. Nevertheless, despite this small series of missteps, the film is the most entertaining Shakespearian adaptation I can remember watching.
Viewers familiar with Whedon’s work will also be pleased to see a cast straight out of the director’s harem of actors, with the entirety of the main cast comprised of actors who have worked with the director before. The casting for the film is largely spot on, with Amy Acker and Fran Kranz as the standouts in their respective roles of Beatrice and Claudio.
Amy Acker especially showcases a great comfort with Shakespearian dialogue, pulling it off with an ease that seems to transform its content, if not its form, to modern speech.
As a filmmaker known for his particular brand of humour and snappy dialogue, Whedon letting his directorial style speak for itself in Much Ado About Nothing might seem a risky move. However, the film delivers the trademark Joss Whedon humour in spades, proving that his gifts do not lie only in quips and dialogue. The Shakespearian story that lends the framework for this film is flawed in many ways yet it is also beside the point. The incredibly strong directorial style, cinematography, and acting are what make this film a standout.