by Elizabeth EstenJoss Whedon. Hearing that name alone can make a group of nerds scream. Whedon has been working since the early ’90s on a variety of works, from television shows to films to projects made exclusively for the internet. While working on a little movie you might’ve heard of called The Avengers, Whedon and his wife collaborated on a pet project filmed in his own home on a relatively low budget. That film is Much Ado About Nothing.
Much Ado About Nothing, for those who haven’t had the pleasure of watching or reading Shakespeare’s original play, is what you might call a proto-romantic comedy. There’s a conflict between characters caused by a malicious lie and it’s not until the truth is told that the conflict can be resolved and people can be happy. The plot revolves around Claudio (Fran Kranz), a man in high power who desires to marry Hero (Jillian Morgese), the daughter of a lord. Claudio is manipulated by Don Pedro (Reed Diamond) into believing that Hero is cheating on him, and the drama only rises from there. Meanwhile, another couple, Beatrice (Amy Acker) and Benedick (Alexis Denisof), continue their “will-they-or-won’t-they” relationship. Much Ado isn’t an epic, but a story of characters and their issues, and this is perfect for Whedon’s sensibilities.
Joss Whedon may not be the most talented director in a visual sense, but his strengths are in his understanding of characters and their motivations. It’s clear from the onset that Whedon knows these characters and what makes their conflicts most interesting better than anyone else who has ever adapted the play for the screen — which is showcased in how he handles the plot and the overall character dynamics.
A common thread in many interpretations of this play is favoring the classic conflict of Bendick and Beatrice, leaving Hero and Claudio’s plot in the dust (Kenneth Branagh’s 1993 version being one such interpretation). But Whedon thrusts Claudio and Hero’s relationship into the spotlight. Framing Claudio as a complete jerk, he commands the audience’s attention with a portrait of a deeply flawed man manipulated by others to hurt an innocent woman. Claudio is usually played as a good guy in a bad situation, but Fran Kranz plays him as a selfish bastard with serious anger and jealousy problems. He’s rash in his decision-making and by the end, it’s unclear if he really did learn to trust Hero and follow his heart rather than be changed by others.
The performances can be inconsistent across the board, but when they’re good, they add immensely to the experience. Amy Acker shines as Beatrice and Clark Gregg’s charm works in his more fatherly manner and his kindness, but for me Nathan Fillion as Dogberry, the police chief, steals the show. Fillion essentially plays him as some weird hybrid between Michael Scott and Horatio Caine. His comedic timing is on point at all times, finding humor in the most seemingly mundane lines. His character isn’t terribly complex, but Dogberry is often much more interesting than our flimsy antagonists because of Fillion’s excellent work.
The film’s visuals may not be as striking as they could have been, but that doesn’t mean that Much Ado doesn’t look good overall. The decision to shoot in black and white might have been largely due to ease of lighting, but it positively contributes to the overall aesthetic. Because of this choice, the film feels both new and old. The story is given a more modern update in setting, but the color palette makes it feel timeless. It’s also notable that Whedon overcomes the tiny budget of the project by casting his friends and filming in his own house. The low budget sensibility works in the film’s favor, especially since the story is so small in nature. The movie never feels huge in scale, but the execution and production values are of high quality considering the resources that they had.
Much Ado About Nothing may be a simple story in nature, but Joss Whedon’s sensitivity to the characters and the solid performances makes this adaptation work.
4 out of 5 stars