Much Ado About Nothing, Joss Whedon Edition

I like to tell people that I enjoy the works of William Shakespeare. I think it makes me sound smart and cultured and there generally aren’t a lot of follow up questions. That statement isn’t exactly a lie, but it isn’t 100% the truth either. I have really enjoyed the plays that I’ve read and I have gone to see Shakespeare in the park on numerous occasions in Saratoga. But Shakespeare doesn’t come effortlessly to me; perhaps if I read it or watched it more regularly it wouldn’t be such an issue. Shakespeare is work for me. When I read it, I have to start off very slowly to adjust to the dialogue and speech patterns. I usually have to re-read passages a few times to ground myself. This problem is exasperated when watching the plays performed; without the luxury of rewind or control over the speed of the dialogue, I often feel like I am drowning in the beginning if it is a play that I am unfamiliar with. I feel a little overwhelmed and panic – maybe I’m not as smart as I think I am – and worry that none of this is going to make any sense. I usually get only the broadest of strokes and can’t appreciate the smaller points, let alone the beauty of the language or Shakespeare’s wit. It takes me about an act to acclimate and then suddenly everything falls into place; the part of my brain that knows how to process Shakespeare kicks into gear and it all makes sense to me. Jokes are funny, sonnets sing and I no longer feel so completely lost. Shakespeare is so good that once I settle in I tend to forget the earlier struggles – until the next time I spend some time with The Bard and the whole process repeats itself.

This is where I found myself the other night when I decided to beat the heat at the local art house theater for a screening of Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing. I had heard wonderful things about this adaptation and though I am not a Whedon disciple – I’ve never seen Buffy , Angel or Dollhouse *gasp* – I generally like his stuff that I’ve seen.  He has a way with dialogue that led me to believe that he would do some interesting stuff with Shakespeare. Filmed in black and white, Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing used the original language but it is placed in modern day; the actors are not wearing period costumes or in courtyards. They are clad in suits and dresses and the majority of the action takes place in one home (Wheadon’s). The pace is quick and his adaptation firmly embraces the more screwball aspects of the play while staying true to the darker moments as well.

The cast doesn’t have any real stars, but are familiar players in the Whedon universe. The biggest name is probably Nathan Fillion, but he has a smaller role as Dogberry and serves primarily comic relief (which he completely nails). A black and white adaption of Shakespeare featuring a cast that is unknown to most of America might seem like a risky gamble, but everyone seems to be having so much fun that their excitement is palpable. Even if many of the actors are not household names, they do a fantastic job. Amy Acker is simply spectacular as Beatrice; she delivers Shakespeare’s words so effortlessly that it sounds like the way that she naturally speaks. Alexis Denisof is dreamy as Benedick and serves as a nice foil for Acker. I was beyond excited to see Reed Diamond as Don Pedro; he and I go way back to his day as Mike Kellerman on Homicide: Life on the Streets (one of the best and most underrated shows of all time; watch that thing!). Sean Maher is deliciously dark as Don John; it took me until halfway through the film to figure out that he was Simon on Firefly. One of the more interesting choices was to change the gender of Conrade – as written, he is Don John’s evil henchman but in this version Conrade is a henchwoman and Don John’s lover (played by Riki Lindhome, who is one half of the funny musical comedy folk duo Garfunkel and Oates – check them out!). The cast compliments each other so nicely and as so many of them have worked together in the past there is an ease and familiarity in their interactions. It’s all very entertaining to watch and is really, really funny. The audience was laughing out loud as much at Much Ado About Nothing as almost any comedy I’ve seen this summer.

I won’t get into all the twists and turns of the plot – if you are unfamiliar with the play watching it all unfold is half the fun – but it features some developments that are familiar in the works of Shakespeare: a misunderstanding, people meddling in other’s business, people plotting against each other and faked deaths. You know, the usual. For the people that think Shakespeare is boring, rest assured that daytime soap operas have nothing on the works of good old Billy Shakes. You haven’t seen some diabolical plotting until you’ve read some Shakespeare.

Some other thoughts:

  • This project allegedly was born out of parties at Whedon’s house where he’d get his pals together, drink some adult beverages and recite some Shakespeare. That might not sound like the wildest party, but I have a sneaking suspicion that with this crew things would get a little rowdy.
  • I love that Don John is willing to ruin lives just because he can. There isn’t much of a backstory on why he’s a jerk and there doesn’t need to be. Sometimes it is nice to not have everything explained.
  • The following happens in the span of thirty seconds: Profess love for first time-recipient questions love-proclaimer swears to do anything to prove it-request is made to murder. In the words of the wise philosopher Ron Burgundy

Boy-That-Escalated-Quickly-Anchorman

  • This movie is simply beautifully shot. The cinematography is simply amazing. Black and white was an inspired choice.
  • The next time I’m bored, I’m going to take a cue from this film and just start messing with my friend’s love lives. Much Ado makes it seem like it’s really easy to make people fall in love and I want to try some sociological experiments to put this to the test. Of course, this won’t work on the people who read the blog and will see this coming. The lesson here is that failure to read my blog is justification for me to play God with your personal life. (Aren’t you glad you’re reading it?)

Once I got myself back in the Shakespeare groove, I really enjoyed this interpretation of Much Ado About Nothing. The contrast of the Elizabethan language and the modern attire and locale as well as the vivid cinematography and sparkling cast made Whedon’s adaptation so enjoyable. It took me about twenty minutes to get the lay of the land but I’m glad that I kept trying and stuck with the film. It was worth the extra effort; it might not be for Shakespearean purists, but with a little bit of work it is accessible to newbies. Sure a lot of the plot is based on simple misunderstandings that could be cleared up prettily easily, but it is so pleasurable watching it all unfold that it doesn’t really matter. Other films should hope for the chemistry that this cast has; Joss Whedon has basically made a really expensive home movie and we are lucky enough to view it.

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