Review: Much Ado About Nothing

much ado beatrice and benedick

After filming one of the biggest movies of all time, The Avengers, Joss Whedon’s way of relaxing was to gather some friends at his house. And film a Shakespearean play. As one does. If you’re a devoted Whedon fan, you’ve probably heard that he likes to have readings of Shakespeare at his home, so it seems like a logical next step to try his hand at bringing those readings to the big screen.

Whedon’s version of Much Ado About Nothing is simple in appearance–a black and white film where they depended mostly on natural lighting and filmed everything around Joss’s own house. Whedon even produced the music, except for the lyrics to two songs that were written by Shakespeare and included in the play. Now when you watch a Shakespearean production, you usually bring with you all the previous versions of that production you’ve seen. So if you’re particularly attached to another version then you may be reluctant to give this one a try. I admit that I haven’t seen any other versions of Much Ado, so there will be no comparisons here, but I strongly suggest that even if you are absolutely in love with a different adaptation, do not give this one a miss. It is well worth the admission and more. This is possibly the best adaptation of a Shakespearean play I have ever seen. That might sound like hyperbole, but it is no exaggeration. This adaptation takes place in modern day, and it worked perfectly with the material thanks to the amazing collection of actors Whedon masterfully gathered and directed.

Much Ado About Nothing poster of Fran Kranz in water holding drinkWhat makes this version so great is that even while the actors are speaking Shakespeare, you can still easily understand what is going on, which isn’t always the case for many people trying to comprehend Shakespeare’s work. The actors conveyed the meaning behind the words with their actions and facial expressions–which is obviously how acting works, duh, but they brought the words to life by portraying the characters as just normal, everyday people that you could relate to. And the best part is that it’s hilarious. Shakespeare, of course, wrote many comedies, but this is the first time I’ve really choked with laughter while watching a version of his work. Whedon took Shakespeare’s original intent and updated it for today’s audience, supplementing Shakespeare’s witty dialogue with physical gags (including possibly the first Shakespearean fist bump) and occasional slapstick humor (Benedick’s stretching to show off to Beatrice is not to be missed). There are changes to the original text, such as that Don John’s faithful companion Conrad is now a woman and his lover, but the changes made all fit and serve the story.

The absolute best part of this film, if I haven’t made it obvious already, is the performances. Everyone did a great job, and seeing so many of my favorite actors from Whedon’s previous work together in one film only made it even better. Clark Gregg’s Leonato is amazing (apparently Anthony Head was originally intended for the role, and though I weep for what might have been, Gregg did a wonderful job and I wouldn’t trade him for anything). Nathan Fillion’s Dogberry completely stole the show, and his interactions with Tom Lenk’s Verges are perfect. The only criticism I would make, and it pains me to say this, it really does, is that at times Alexis Denisof’s dialogue delivery fell a bit flat. Of all the actors, he felt the most like he was just reading Shakespeare rather than living the character, though many of his physical actions (I refer you back to the stretching/showing off) were great. Of course, his character was also burdened with many a soliloquy, which can be hard to make sound believable in a modern context.

All in all, I left the theater feeling pretty good about the movie. It’ll make you laugh, it’ll make you cry, it’ll make you buy a copy of the play to find out if Dogberry really did say all of those lines. As it is an independent film, it isn’t showing everywhere, so here’s a list of theaters that are showing it in case you’re interested. See it, and I guarantee it’ll brighten your day (okay, I’m not actually authorized to guarantee that, but still, go see it).