I had to go back and check, but Claudio (Fran Kranz) really does say this is Act 5, Scene 4 in one of Shakespeare’s better comedies, Much Ado About Nothing, “I’ll hold my mind, were she an Ethiope.” This is one of the more racist lines in Shakespeare’s canon, but Joss Whedon is so adept at maneuvering in and around the bard’s words that he brilliantly has Benedick (Alexis Denisof) stand right next to him with a loud click of the tongue and shake of the head. That is not in Shakespeare’s play, but it is just one of a thousand sly touches by Whedon.
Whedon abridged the play, but uses the exact same words, except altering one line, which is a Jewish slur originally. Shakespeare was a bit sharp-tongued against 17th century minorities. Otherwise, the words joust and rattle around in the air in present-day Santa Monica. Rather than returning from actual battle, it feels as if Don Pedro (Reed Diamond), Claudio, and Benedick are returning from a Wall Street duel where all the action occurred in the boardroom.
Shot in a lightning fast 12 days during Whedon’s break from filming The Avengers (2012), and using his own house as the setting, Much Ado About Nothing is a lightning bolt of energy. The famous back-and-forth verbal quips between Benedick and Beatrice (Amy Acker) are completely engrossing. Acker steals every single scene she is in, which is the majority of the film. Emma Thompson accomplished the same feat in Kenneth Branagh’s 1993 film version; therefore, it is mostly the role of Beatrice that deserves the credit, but this should take nothing away from enjoying Acker’s wonderful performance.
The whole gang are practicing alcoholics with every counter covered in empty wine glasses and frequent flask sips along with a minibar stashed in every corner. Whedon speeds up the ‘Sigh No More’ poem interlude transforming it into jazzy adult contemporary. Claudio uses an iPod and Don Predro initiates a fist bump. These are just a few of the delicious asides, which spruce up a very well known play. Unfortunately, Much Ado About Nothing also comes with the Claudio, Hero (Jillian Morgese), and Don John (Sean Maher) baggage.
This story is a hefty part of the plot line but I am always happy to see it disappear into the background when either Benedick or Beatrice enters the room for another round. It may not be all Fran Kranz’s fault, but Claudio comes off as a ridiculous sop and hams it up throughout. Much of this comes with the character but Kranz did it no favors. At least Maher did what he could with the always-dull Don John character and makes what Keanu Reeves did in 1993 that much more eye-rolling.
Whedon chose to shoot the movie in black and white; I do not know why. The lack of color takes nothing away from the film but it does not add anything to it either. Perhaps he guessed this would be the one and only piece he could get away with employing such a tactic. Nobody would want to see something like The Avengers sans color. However, if you are already a Whedon fan, you are going to see a lot of actors pop up who have been in his work before. Multiple cast members were in Whedon’s TV efforts “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”, “Angel”, and “Firefly” and more were in his films including The Cabin in the Woods and The Avengers.
Much Ado About Nothing is always ripe for auteurs to reimagine just as Romeo & Juliet is there for directors interested in that tragedy. Whedon succeeds hands down with a very risky move setting it in today’s California; Branagh kept his version safely in 1600’s Italy. Filmgoers reap the rewards that instead of taking a vacation between shooting and editing The Avengers, Whedon chose to shoot another film instead.
Directed by: Joss Whedon
Written by: William Shakespeare, Joss Whedon
Starring: Amy Acker, Alexis Deniof, Nathan Fillion, Clark Gregg, Reed Diamond, Fran Kranz, Jillian Morgese, Sean Maher, Spencer Treat Clark, Riki Lindhome, Ashley Johnson