I’m not much of a Shakespeare person. I don’t dislike his writings and have even enjoyed the few bits of his work I’ve read, but I wasn’t over the moon when it was announced Joss Whedon was making his own version of Much Ado About Nothing, even though I am a big fan of Whedon’s work. The main reason I was going to see it was because it was a Whedon production and because my girlfriend was excited about it. I cannot only conclude, however, that what I saw a couple days ago is, dare I say, funnier, sadder, better acted, and superiorly directed than Kenneth Branagh’s 1993 version but is also, without a doubt, the most fun I had watching a film in a long time.
For those who don’t know, Much Ado About Nothing is a comedy-drama that centers around two sets of lovers during a two to three week period filled with sex, laughs, lies, and enough alcohol to make you wonder how everyone isn’t stumbling around in an incomprehensibly drunk state the entire movie. One pair of lovers is the young Claudio and Hero (played by Fran Kranz and newcomer Jillian Morgese), who are quite enamored with each other. Then there’s the older Benedick and Beatrice (portrayed by Alexis Denisof and Amy Acker), who had a relationship in the past but broke up rather nastily and are now steadfastly against the idea of getting married to anyone – let alone each other. While the other supporting characters try to get each pair together, the villain, Don John (Sean Maher), causes trouble between Claudio and Hero by feeding lies into Claudio’s ear and framing Hero for infidelity. In the meantime, the bumbling constable, Dogberry (Nathan Fillion), and his guards ineptly try and undo some of Don John’s villainy.
Whedon shot all this within a span of 12 days at his home with a group of close friends and work colleagues whom he worked with on other projects. I was initially worried about whether or not the Whedon troupe would be able to handle the Shakespearean dialogue when I saw the film’s trailer. I am happy to say I was wrong. Not only do the actors make the dialogue seem natural, making me forget it was an older style of English in some cases, I can’t think of one bad actor in the bunch. They are all masters of their parts and are extremely funny when it’s appropriate and heartbreaking when seriousness is called for.
Whedon’s additions to the text are welcome. While not changing much of the dialogue, he does add in little bits of visual and physical humor here and there that are gut-busting in their hilarity and help give the film more of a Joss Whedon feel. Even some of the comedy bits that have been done since Chaplin and Keaton ruled the screen still work amazingly well.
The Avengers director also manages to make character motivations and actions, particularly in the case of Claudio, more believable, which was one of the improvements over the Branagh version. During a party near the beginning, for example, Don Pedro (played by Reed Diamond) says he will, under the guise of Claudio, woo Hero. This is all done with the utmost sincerity on Pedro’s part. He wants to see Claudio and Hero together, and in Branagh’s take on the text, it’s made abundantly clear that Pedro’s heart is in the right place. So, when Don John lies to Claudio and tells him that Pedro is actually winning Hero for himself, you wonder why in the name of Queen Elizabeth I Claudio would believe him, especially since Claudio seems to know and have a much closer relationship with Pedro than with John. It makes Claudio come off like a real imbecile is what I’m getting at, which some might argue is the right approach for the character.
I argue that Whedon did it better because he adds just a few little nuances into the delivery of the dialogue and into Claudio and Pedro’s facial expressions that would make it much more reasonable that Claudio would jump to the negative conclusion with a little prompting from John. Why does this seeming little thing matter? Because it makes the character of Claudio, for me anyway, far less frustrating to watch since I wasn’t yelling at the screen the whole time about how much of an idiot he was being. These little changes are peppered throughout the film and made me care a great deal more about all the characters than I did with Branagh’s movie.
All the small changes that make the film more Whedonesque, the physical humor and better setups and character motivations, are at the center of what makes this film so great and fun to watch. It also represents a constant throughout Whedon’s television and film career: the relatable and human quality of everything he writes and/or directs (yes, he didn’t write Much Ado, but he still instilled it with those qualities that might have been missing if someone else adapted the piece). Branagh’s version of the characters had the air of “We’re doing Shakespeare.” Whedon’s give the impression of “We’re portraying real people; we’re just using an old form of talking to do it.” (Even the portrayal of Don John is less of an over the top cackling villain, like it kind of is in Branagh’s, and a more realistically detached jerk.) Branagh’s approach isn’t necessarily wrong (in many ways it’s probably more traditional), I just prefer Whedon’s. Bottom line, Whedon’s name might draw people to the film but it’s this approach, this ability to take something old and make it so new, fresh, and real that will keep people of my generation (the early 90s) and younger coming back to this rendition of such a classic work, even if they are people who would never have gone near Shakespeare otherwise.
To prove my point, I direct you toward something I observed in the theater before the film started. Most of the people filing into their seats were middle-aged, elderly, or young people who I could see going to a film based off of Shakespeare’s work. But amongst all these predictable Much Ado attendees was a young man, probably in his early twenties at the very oldest, who would look more at home at a baseball game (he was even wearing a baseball cap) than a modern retelling of Shakespeare. I don’t know how well he followed or enjoyed the film but I did seem him laugh a bit in a few places. I also know I shouldn’t judge by appearances, but if I’m right, and Whedon was able to get a modern 20-something (who may not even read all that often) to sit down and watch a Shakespeare film purely by putting his name on it – and then hook him into being a fan of the play…well, that’s something to be proud of.
I’m not much of a Shakespeare person. Neither are a lot of other people, but this film may have started me – and many cinema-goers – on the road to becoming one.