There was a star danced, and under that Judge Clark Douglas was born.
Shakespeare knows how to throw a party.
"I wish my horse had the speed of your tongue."
Facts of the Case
Shakespeare's classic comedy tells the story of two strikingly different romances. In one corner, we have Benedick (Alexis Denisof, Angel) and Beatrice (Amy Acker, Dollhouse), ex-lovers who bicker constantly and refuse to admit that they still have feelings for each other. In the other corner, we have the soft-spoken Claudio (Fran Kranz, The Cabin in the Woods) and the delicate Hero (Jillian Morgese, Marvel's The Avengers), who quickly declare their love for each other and plan to marry soon. In no time at all, these four find themselves subjected to a wide variety of behind-the-scenes machinations. The noble Don Pedro (Reed Diamond, Homicide: Life on the Street), Hero's good-natured father Leonato (Clark Gregg, Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) and a handful of others conspire to bring Benedick and Beatrice together again, while the villainous Don John (Sean Maher, Firefly) hatches a scheme to destroy Hero's reputation.
Much Ado About Nothing is arguably the friskiest and funniest of Shakespeare's comedies. The play has been recreated on the stage and screen many times, but for me the definitive version has always been Kenneth Branagh's 1993 movie. It's a thoroughly joyful, vibrant film that captures both the rowdy fun and passionate melodrama of Shakespeare's tale, and Branagh himself delivered the best performance of his career as Benedick. As such, I was a little skeptical when I heard that Joss Whedon was working on his own version of Shakespeare's tale, in which he would retain Shakespeare's writing but update the setting to the present-day. Though I'm a fan of Whedon, his work as a writer is more impressive than his work as a director—he excels in the realm of dialogue, plotting and characterization. Given that those elements had already been largely handled by Shakespeare, I wondered what Whedon would manage to bring to the table.
Fortunately, Joss' Much Ado About Nothing is a real treat. It's not quite good enough to overtake Branagh's excellent film, but it's an entirely worthy alternate take that handles some considerable challenges with ease. Shot in black-and-white and filmed in and around Whedon's own home (nice digs, man!), this particular adaptation takes a breezy, naturalistic approach to handling Shakespeare's gorgeous, funny, challenging dialogue. While actors in some Shakespeare films fall into the trap of overselling the weight of the writing (see Julie Taymor's ambitious, misguided The Tempest), Whedon's cast members (most of whom are veterans of his assorted films and television shows) deliver the Bard's dialogue with offhanded ease. Whedon doesn't do much tinkering with the text (save for making judicious edits, which is a necessity in most big-screen Shakespeare adaptations), but he does enhance the dialogue with a generous supply of sight gags and physical comedy. Once you get used to the contrast between the old dialogue and the modern setting (it doesn't take long, honestly), you might be surprised by just how much Whedon's flick feels like a familiar romantic comedy (albeit one that is much wittier and more entertaining than most recent installments in that genre).
It must be admitted that moving the story to the present does present its challenges. While the Benedick and Beatrice material feels very convincing as a 2013 love story, Claudio and Hero's tale is undeniably a product of its time. I won't spoil the plot for those unfamiliar with the play, but suffice it to say that there's a development that causes several cast members (particularly Leonato) to demonstrate some rather outdated social attitudes. While this strand of the plot works in a period setting, when placed in the present it just seems strange and creepy. It's a good thing, then, that the acting in this portion of the film is so exceptional. Fran Kranz does tremendous work as Claudio, bringing a wounded soulfulness to the part that is vastly more compelling than Robert Sean Leonard's work in the earlier version. Newcomer Jillian Morgese is a lovely Hero, and Gregg brings a tender paternal warmth to Leonato that is quite effective. Indeed, the clunkiest scene in the film comes very close to working due to the fact that Gregg is working so hard to bring some semblance of humanity to that moment.
In any event, Benedick and Beatrice have always had the more entertaining story in Much Ado About Nothing, and that's still the case this time around. Denisof's Benedick is solid, but it's Acker who delivers the film's best and most interesting performance. She brings so much nuance and depth to the role, finding a perfect balance between the character's easygoing charm and prickly wit. She also demonstrates a real knack for physical comedy during a sequence in which she clumsily attempts to eavesdrop on a conversation. Reed Diamond and Sean Maher do solid work in two of the tale's less showy roles, while Nathan Fillion generates a lot of laughs as Dogberry (which is easily the tale's showiest role). While Michael Keaton played Dogberry as a spastic, flatulent drunk, Fillion plays him as a cross between Frank Drebin and David Caruso. He's a hoot, and it's no surprise that he steals all of his scenes.
Much Ado About Nothing (Blu-ray) delivers a solid 1080p/1.78:1 transfer. While this is certainly a low-budget effort that offers little in the way of striking sets or special effects, the crisp black-and-white imagery is visually appealing. Detail is sharp throughout, though there are brief moments of excessive noise here and there. The DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio track is simple and effective, as this is primarily a dialogue-driven track without much complex sound design. The gentle musical score is effective and used rather sparingly (though it's worth noting that I much prefer Patrick Doyle's 1993 arrangement of "Sigh No More" to Jed Whedon's). Supplements include a solo commentary with Whedon, a much rowdier commentary with Whedon, Sean Maher, Riki Lindhome, Nick Kocher, Brian McElhaney, Clark Gregg, Spencer Treat Clark, Reed Diamond, Fran Kranz, Ashley Johnson, Jillian Morgese, Emma Bates, Tom Lenk, Alexis Denisof and Romy Rosemont, a standard making-of featurette ("Much Ado About Making Nothing"), a shorter "Bus Ado About Nothing" featurette that sees the cast and crew on a bus trip and a "Sigh No More" music video. You also get a digital copy.
I realize that Whedon is Mr. Superhero Blockbuster these days, but I hope he continues to find time to churn out smaller, more personal projects like Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog and this lovely Shakespeare adaptation. The latest version of Much Ado About Nothing is a worthy modern take that effectively captures the wit and passion of the play.
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