'Much Ado' is a legitimately entertaining Shakespeare adaptation
Director Joss Whedon's version of 'Much Ado' is an adept adaptation of the Shakespeare comedy.
Elsa Guillet-Chapuis/Roadside Attractions/AP
Much ado is being made over the fact that Joss Whedon directed his modern-dress Shakespeare adaptation â€śMuch Ado About Nothingâ€ť while taking a 12-day break from postproduction on â€śThe Avengers.â€ť But why should this be so surprising? As superhero franchise palate cleansers go, you canâ€™t do much better than the Bard. Besides, thereâ€™s plenty of avenging going on in â€śMuch Ado,â€ť minus the CGI, of course, and with a bit better dialogue.
I enjoyed Whedonâ€™s film both as a species of stunt and also as a legitimately entertaining entry in the voluminous Shakespeare adaptation sweepstakes. Itâ€™s very different from Kenneth Branaghâ€™s sun-splashed 1993 version, set in a villa in Tuscany and starring Branagh and his then-wife Emma Thompson as the contentious Benedick and Beatrice, who dislike each other so intensely that itâ€™s obvious they will fall in love.
Whedon has mostly cast his movie with actors familiar from his movies and TV series, including Alexis Denisof (â€śBuffy the Vampire Slayerâ€ť) and Amy Acker (â€śAngelâ€ť) as Benedick and Beatrice, Fran Kranz (â€śDollhouseâ€ť) and Jillian Morgese (a Whedon newcomer) as the dewy lovers Claudio and Hero, and Nathan Fillion (â€śFirefly,â€ť â€śBuffyâ€ť) and Tom Lenk (â€śBuffyâ€ť) as the bumbling constable Dogberry and his loyal sidekick Verges. John Ford had his stock company. Why not Whedon?
Shot in black and white in Whedonâ€™s sprawling Spanish-style manse in Santa Monica, Calif., the film seems, quite literally, homey. (To make matters even homier, the house was designed by Kai Cole, Whedonâ€™s wife and one of the filmâ€™s producers.) The black-and-whiteness allows us to focus on the characters and the language without the vibrant distractions of a color palette.
This is a mixed blessing. Olivierâ€™s â€śHamletâ€ť and â€śRichard IIIâ€ť this is not. The actors, while sportive and surprisingly adept at making iambic pentameter seem as form-fitting as plain old (olde?) American lingo, are not exactly going to be giving the Royal Shakespeare Company any sleepless nights. Itâ€™s beyond need of proof, of course, that American actors can perform Shakespeare on a level with the Brits. Still, there is nothing here that would have given, say, the Brando of â€śJulius Caesarâ€ť any sleepless nights, either.
But Whedon does respect the play, and its language. This is no small achievement. Too many Shakespeare redos are plagued by an overarching â€śconceptâ€ť that all too often wrecks whatever pleasures we might have taken from the play. Prime example: Baz Luhrmannâ€™s â€śRomeo + Juliet,â€ť which did to Shakespeare what his â€śThe Great Gatsbyâ€ť would do to F. Scott Fitzgerald. (Can no one keep this man away from the classics?)
Whedon was smart to choose â€śMuch Adoâ€ť as his maiden Shakespearean voyage. With its merry wit, interlocking love stories, and broad slapstick, it offers up a template for his own sprightly gifts. Plus it has the advantage of essentially being set in a single locale â€“ no raging heaths, no battles (except domestic ones).
This is one movie in which the actors look as if theyâ€™re having a good time and, for a change, we are, too. I imagine Shakespeare would have been pleased. Of course, if he were writing today, heâ€™d no doubt be writing for the movies. He might have even taken up â€śThe Avengers II.â€ť Grade: B+ (Rated PG-13 for some sexuality and brief drug use.)