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Much Ado About Nothing

March 11, 2013

A few minutes after his new film, Much Ado About Nothing, had finished screening at the South by Southwest Film Conference, Joss Whedon climbed atop a riser in front of the screen. Surrounded by almost all of the film’s large cast, the director explained that he had shot this modern-dress version of William Shakespeare’s comedy in just 12 days, because that was all the time he had available right after he finished making his previous movie, The Avengers. “I could have taken my wife to Italy,” he said, “but I decided to do this instead.”

The only way he could get away with such a quick shoot, he confessed, was because he already had a great script in hand—that Shakespeare bloke writes pretty good dialogue—and a ready-made set: Whedon’s own house. “When I shoot something like The Avengers,” he said, “the paint is usually still drying on the set. Here was a set that was already built, and I knew every corner of it.” It also helped that he had worked with most of the actors before.

The results are surprisingly strong. Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing is one of the funniest and yet sexiest Shakespeare movies ever released. When Benedick (Alexis Denisof), Don Pedro (Reed Diamond) and Claudio (Fran Kranz) first arrive for the weekend-long party at the Southern California mansion of Leonato (Clark Gregg), all four men are in crisp, dark suits, suggesting that the dialogue’s talk of soldiers returning from battle refers to corporate warriors. This and similar anachronisms are softened by Whedon’s decision to film in the time-scrambling medium of black and white—and with handsome results.

The famous exchange of insults between Benedick and Beatrice (Amy Acker) is quite amusing, but funnier still is the bumbling reactions of the two actors when they fall in love with each other, almost against their wills. The lines are witty enough, but Whedon heightens the humor by adding just enough slapstick to reduce the audience to tears of laughter without ruining the characters’ credibility. Some of that physical comedy was improvised, but most of it was written by Whedon into the screenplay during the final month of production on The Avengers. “You can’t just throw Amy Acker down the stairs,” Whedon said; “you have to prepare for it.” With Acker two chairs away, he then joked, “Though I don’t see why not.”

Much Ado About Nothing, scheduled for a theatrical release in June, nimbly handles the more serious scenes as well. The famous confrontation between Claudio and Hero (Jillian Morgese) at their wedding is genuinely edgy, while Hero’s subsequent funeral boasts a candlelit eeriness. It resembles a Woody Allen film, and I mean that as the highest compliment.

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