Much Ado About Nothing

Much Ado About Nothing

  • Full disclosure: While I am something of a Shakespearean purist, I am not a fan of this film’s source material. So it is I come to Joss Whedon’s adaptation with a certain bias, a certain expectation of failure. No matter the skill in making something bad, the result is likely to be bad itself.
  • So I am surprised to say Whedon often succeeds.
  • His script and direction capture the play’s rare humor and thereby feature several laugh worthy moments.
  • Whedon also finds some drama in the play, occasionally delivering actual emotion, most notably in the first wedding and again when Beatrice (Amy Acker) begs Benedick (Alexis Denisof) to kill Claudio (Fran Kranz).
  • Furthermore, Whedon’s decision to film this production in black and white is inspired. It creates a feeling of timelessness that helps offset (if only a little) the time constrained nature of the play.
  • Whedon makes Conrade female. I don’t always like the decision to change a character’s gender, but I think it works well here. (Although not updating the dialogue and continually referring to Conrade as “man” proves clunky.)
  • Most of the performances are excellent, my favorite being Amy Acker as Beatrice. Even as she verbally assaults romance, Acker captures Beatrice’s romanticism, which helps make her eventual pairing with Benedick feel natural. Clark Gregg is good to very good as Leonato and Jillian Morgese makes a fine screen debut as Hero. I also love Nathan Fillion as Dogberry. He perfectly renders the character’s delusional linguistic incompetence.
  • The only actor for whom I do not care is Alexis Benisof as Benedick. There is no subtlety to his performance, at least partially because it never feels as though he’s internalized Shakespeare’s poetic dialogue; it feels like Benisof is reciting memorized lines. Needless to say, Benedick is one of the most important characters in Much Ado, so Benisof’s performance proves problematic.
  • Whedon’s film suffers from the flaws inherent in Shakespeare’s play. First, female characters lack definition. Beatrice almost has a personality, but the rest of the women are idealized archetypes, most especially Hero. Secondly, Don John’s motivations are never investigated, which renders him a dull bore.
  • Moreover, Whedon creates some additional flaws, foremost amongst them setting this play in modern times, equipped with smart phones and iPods. No, I’m not discussing the awkwardness of dialogue like, “My wit is in my scabbard,” which loses double and literal meaning when referencing a holstered pistol. I’m referring to the fact that Much Ado About Nothing is not a timeless play, at least not in terms of plot or setting. Its observations about language, gender relations, identity, psychology and snobbery might be timeless, but arranged marriages, societal indignation at the slightest prospect of female infidelity, and the ways in which law enforcement is involved do not translate well to the modern Western world. Which is to say, the events and setting of this play are deeply imbedded in the time during which Shakespeare wrote it. By moving the story to present day, Whedon removes cultural context and renders the plot nonsensical, which in turn limits the story’s thematic utility.
  • Finally, I think Whedon loses the essence of Dogberry. Here Dogberry functions as nothing more than comedic plot device, but in the play he is more than that. He’s also thematic, used to make fun of citizen police forces, to highlight the power of language, and to contrast courtiers and working class individuals, all through hyperbole. By losing these thematic elements, Whedon makes Dogberry feel superfluous.
  • And yet, for all of these flaws, Much Ado About Nothing is above average, all things considered. In addition to the merits noted above, it has a terrific score that often provides proper cues at precise moments.
  • Furthermore, it uses physical comedy effectively, never drawing too much attention to it, never overplaying the laugh.
  • Most importantly, it is fun. In an era of melodramatic romantic comedies (here’s looking at you Safe Haven), Whedon delivers an entertaining and accessible film that has appeal to wide audiences, even those who normally hate Shakespeare. It doesn’t rank with the best adaptations of The Bard’s work, but it is worthwhile viewing nonetheless.
  • Final Grade: C+

4 thoughts on “Much Ado About Nothing

  1. Very fair assessment. You have some great points about the loss of significance in Dogberry’s role in modern times, and a couple of other things. I actually thought the (product placement) use of iPods was quite interesting, but I do see what you’re saying. I think what surprised me the most about this film is Whedon’s adaptability. Only months prior he had shot Marvel’s The Avengers. And now. . . a Shakespearian play? What a transition!

    • Thanks. Agreed on Whedon’s adaptability. Not only did he move directly from The Avengers to Shakespeare, but he was even mostly genuine to the material.

      As to iPods and the like . . . I think he integrated them reasonably well, stylistically speaking. My issue is that the content of the play doesn’t facilitate modernity, really.

      • You’re so right. The more I thought about that myself — like the ways in which Don John et al viewed the burgeoning relationship between Claudio and Hero as threats to him — these bits seemed out of place in contemporary times. The way people socialize now totally does not align with this movie, but maybe it’s all just for the sake of experimentation.

      • Maybe. In this case, I don’t like the experiment, though.

        As awkward as the Hero plot becomes, the police force might be even worse. In Shakespeare’s day citizen police had limited authority and were composed by mostly well-to-do non-nobility who served a certain number of days volunteering to help keep the peace. They were untrained and largely ineffectual, so were oft treated with scorn, especially by the nobility, the real law of the era. Our modern world just doesn’t have the same context, which renders Dogberry something less than plausible.

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