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Film Review: Summer Fun in Joss Whedon's 'Much Ado About Nothing'

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If only our high school and college Shakespeare classes were as much fun as Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing. The uber-writer-producer Whedon, along with his game cast, have created a film that’s entertaining for both the Bard’s hardcore fans and newbies alike.

Shakespeare’s comedy focuses on the love-hate relationship between Beatrice (Amy Acker) and Benedick (Alexis Denisof) and star-crossed couple Claudio (Fran Kranz) and Hero (Jillian Morgese) during a visit to Leonato’s (Clark Gregg) estate. Trying to ruin things between Hero (Leonato’s daughter) and Claudio is the sullen ne’er-do-well Don John (Sean Maher).

Shot in black-and-white at Whedon’s own house, Much Ado about Nothing uses Shakespeare’s text while updating the setting, using modern conveniences like cell phones, CD players and flashy cars in playful ways. (But the juxtaposition is subtle and very un-Baz Lurhmann-like.)

So about that text. Yes, hearing the Bard’s words does take a little adjustment. But unlike foreign-language films, there are no subtitles. What audiences do have, though, are Whedon’s expressive actors who help convey Shakespeare’s meaning when may of us are are trying to parse out what was just said onscreen.

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Denisof (who worked with Whedon on the TV series Angel) nearly steals the film as the jokester and sworn bachelor Benedick. His friends trick him into believing that despite Beatrice’s hurled insults toward him, she really does love him. Denisof does a great bit of physical comedy as he’s eavesdropping on his friends as well as this scene where he’s jogging up and down stairs exercising while doing a monologue about the woman that he thought he despised. (How he did that scene without looking winded is beyond us.)

Many of the cast members have worked with Whedon, and the director seemed to put most of them at ease on camera whether or not they’ve worked with Shakespearean text before. Fellow Angel alum Acker plays the caustic and scorned Beatrice, whose expressive face gives the audience so much more insight into her complicated feelings for Benedick than a single word of text.

Clark Gregg (The Avengers) is very un-agent Phil Coulson-like as Hero’s father and man about the estate. He gets to show off a little drama and comedy skills in the film, hilariously hungover in one scene and later as an enraged father against a daughter who sullied her family’s reputation. And though he has a smaller role, Nathan Fillion (Firefly, Serenity, Castle), comically chews up his scenery in the few minutes he has onscreen as Dogberry, an inept head of security. (He had the audience cracking up during the screening while uttering this line, “And Master, sir, do not forget to specify, when time and place shall assert, that I am an ass.”)

The film was shot in just 12 days and edited by Daniel S. Kiminsky and Whedon during lunch breaks on laptops during Avengers post-production, which can explain a few sound issues and a few seemingly overly dramatic edits, most noticeable in scenes with the play’s bad guys Don John, Boracio (Spencer Treat Clark) and Conrade (Riki Lindhome). But, despite those flaws, just thinking about how Whedon and team were able to pull off a film like this in such a short period of time with a larger cast is amazing.

Much Ado About Nothing
won’t have the mass appeal of The Avengers, for sure, but die-hard Whedon fans will enjoy the film and its many familiar faces of the Whedonverse—and Shakespeare fans won’t mind it, either.

Much Ado About Nothing opens today.