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Much Ado About Nothing

June 21, 2013
Much Ado About Nothing

Film adaptations of Shakespeare tend to focus on the tragedies. When his comedies are adapted, as often as not, they’re significantly rewritten to place a recognizable theme into a style more popular at the time. The Taming of the Shrew is a particular favorite, becoming in turns McClintock!, 10 Things I Hate About You, Deliver Us from Eva, and more. Even Forbidden Planet is secretly an adaptation of The Tempest. But a straight adaptation, using the original language, is usually the province of Hamlet or Coriolanus, probably because Shakespearean tragic heroes offer such meaty parts for actors.

There are no such heroic parts in Much Ado About Nothing. It’s a great ensemble piece, and Joss Whedon has a great ensemble to draw from, not to mention a beautiful house in Santa Monica, where he shot his adaptation in secret during a vacation in the post-production of The Avengers.

So, for those of you who slept through high school English: Don Pedro (Reed Diamond), prince of Aragon, arrives at the villa of Leonato (Clark Gregg), governor of Messina, with his retinue, including the valiant young Claudio (Fran Kranz) and the seasoned, cynical Benedick (Alexis Denisof). Benedick immediately takes up his long-running verbal sparring with the sharp and sardonic niece of Leonato, Beatrice (Amy Acker), who shares his dim outlook on marriage and the opposite sex. Meanwhile, Claudio is immediately smitten with Leonato’s daughter, Hero (Jillian Morgese). After a party and some confusion, an engagement is struck and the marriage set a week off.

In order to pass the time until then, Don Pedro proposes a bit of a game: to make Beatrice and Benedick fall in love. He, Leonato, and Claudio will plant the idea in Benedick’s mind while Hero and her attendants Margaret and Ursula (Ashley Johnson and Emma Bates) will go to work on Beatrice. But while the prince schemes to bring these witty unwitting lovers together, his illegitimate brother, Don John (Sean Maher) schemes to tear Claudio and Hero apart. He sets his followers Borachio (Spencer Treat Clark) and Conrade (Riki Lindholme) to the task of smearing Hero’s virtue.

Whedon keeps Shakespeare’s dialogue intact and, as usual under his direction, has his cast deliver it at lightning speed. If you’re not accustomed to Elizabethan language it can be a bit of an adjustment. It’s well worth the effort, though, since this is really, really funny stuff. And no part of it is funnier than Nathan Fillion’s appearance as Dogberry, played in full Richard Castle mode.

Tragedy gets the lion’s share of our attention — in modern usage it’s practically synonymous with drama as a whole — but good comedy acting is a fine art in its own right. Denisof’s plays Benedick from snarky avowed bachelor to lovesick puppydog, charming us at each end and filling between them with a slapstick of bemusement, and the banter back and forth with Acker crackles. Kranz gets a nice break from his usual role as the buffoon while still playing off his youthful appearance.

After all the time Whedon and crew have put in on action, science fiction, fantasy, and other genre efforts it seems out of place to find them banging out a Shakespeare comedy like a summer stock company. But to take good, solid material and make something delightful out of it is the mark of true artistry. Few teams could throw something like this together at all, and it’s a joy to find Whedon tackling projects like this in his spare time.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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