Other Media Review

Much Ado About Nothing, Directed by Joss Whedon


Title: Much Ado About Nothing
Written By: William Shakespeare
Publication Info: 2013
Genre: Historical: Other

Much Ado About Nothing Poster: the lead actors are facing each other in black and white and the text is between them in pinkMuch Ado About Nothing finally opened in my town.  Here's what happened at the movie's conclusion when I went to see it. 

First of all, I let out this happy little sigh. 

Secondly, the two women seated behind me let out identical happy little sighs. 

Thirdly, as I walked to my car, I passed several couples who were walking hand in hand.

Such was the romanticism of the film that, had I been informed that these couples had met for the very first time in the lobby after the movie, and were being born away to their vehicles on a wave of romantic bliss, I would not have been a bit surprised.

Much Ado is a Shakespeare play that swings back and forth between tragedy and comedy (which any Joss Whedon fans will recognize as a very Jossian thing).  To sum up: a lot of rich people have a party.  Benedict and Beatrice (Alexis Denisof and Amy Acker) engage in endless bitter, witty, banter, while Claudio and Hero (Fran Kranz and Jillian Morgese) are caught up in Young Love.  Benedict and Beatrice's friends decide to match-make, while the villainous Don Juan (Sean Maher) decides to break Claudio and Hero up (made easier by the fact that Claudio is established early on as having terrible problems with insecurity and jealousy – dump his ass, Hero, until he gets the therapy he so clearly needs). 

There is wit and there is slapstick humor – and, this being the original Shakespeare dialogue, there is vicious slut-shaming, and the horrible knowledge that no matter how clever the women may be, they stand to be traded about like Pokémon cards at the whims of their male relatives.  And there is one of the best romances of all time, as two strong, passionate, smart people learn to let go of some of their pride, recognize each other's strengths, and love one another.

By now many people know the story of how Joss Whedon directed Much Ado.  He was in the middle of filming The Avengers when he decided he needed a break.  He called his favorite acting buddies and some newcomers and shot Much Ado at his house in twelve days in black and white.  As a long time Joss fan, it is absolutely impossible for me to review this movie with any sort of objectivity, because I've known these actors through their work for years.  The movie is one long house party, so basically it was like going to a party with my best friends (if my best friends were really rich and drank copiously).  The casting of Alexis Denisof and Amy Acker alone is enough to bring a Whedon fan to tears.

As lovely as it is to see all these familiar faces just because I like them, I do think that casting this group of actors had a side benefit other than just miscellaneously gladdening my heart.  Much Ado is about a group of old friends (and enemies) who have known each other for a long time.  Not everyone in this group has worked together before, but many of them have, and the cast has a sense of ease with each other that works beautifully with their roles in the play.   Watch their body language  – they are so comfortable with each other.  Amy and Alexis in particular have been playing off each other for years and it shows, even if you don't know their work from some earlier Whedon production.

Interestingly, the three outsider characters, Don Juan and his sidekicks Conrade and Borachio, are played by actors who haven't acted with the rest of the ensemble (Sean Maher acted with Nathan Fillion in Firefly, but they don't have scenes together in Much Ado).  But the sidekicks are played by actors who played evil sidekicks together in another movie (Last House on the Left).  It's brilliant, because in the context of Much Ado, Borachio and Conrade are outside of everything except each other, and Don Juan is aloof from everyone, even his sidekicks, one of whom is also his lover.

All the performances are outstanding.  In particular, I have to mention Amy Acker.  Her performance as Beatrice is absolutely revelatory.  But with so many great actors playing great parts with relish, there are three actors I want to mention who had small parts and made them significant.  Riki Lindhome plays Conrade, (Don Juan's evil sidekick), Ashley Johnson plays Margaret (Hero's lady-in-waiting), and Spencer Treat Clark plays Borachio, (Don Juan's other evil sidekick.)  All three of these actors have tiny parts with just a few lines each.  Their roles in the plot are to be tools that move things forward.  But these three actors are not content to be plot furniture.  They invest their parts with layers of emotion and meaning and motivation.  To make a small part real and solid is much harder, in my opinion, than accomplishing the same thing with a part that includes big speeches and tons of screen time.  It also points to the strength of the direction.  There are some things Joss is not great at doing, but he is a master at taking a large cast and teasing out the humanity and the relationships between all the cast's members. 

The movie is set in the present day, and for the most part this works. The most glaring problem is that Hero is deemed unworthy of Claudio, and is indeed considered to be better off dead, when it is thought that she is not a virgin.  It's a little more complicated than that.  She is specifically accused of having cheated on her fiancée the night before her wedding.  But over and over again the accusation is made not that she is a cheater, but that she is not a virgin.  At first I thought that this didn't work with the modern setting.  Hero is in her twenties.  Most women in their twenties aren't virgins.  Who gives a shit whether she is a virgin or not (cheating being a separate issue).  But then I started thinking about slut-shaming and how extremely confused and conflicted our society is about women's sexuality, and I thought that while the specific focus on virginity may be out-dated, the general idea, the idea that she is unworthy of love and indeed of life because she might be a slut – that idea persists, and the actions that happen because of that idea make Much Ado one of the darkest of Shakespeare's comedies in a way that still resonates.

I don't know what it's like to watch Much Ado without having so many happy associations with the cast.  But I'm pretty sure that by any measure the movie is excellent.  The cast speaks the lines very naturally, the cinematography and music are lovely, and some of the actors who most impressed me were one I hadn't actually seen before.  If anyone has seen the movie who is a first time Joss viewer, I'd be interested in your comments.  I loved it, and I can't help but think that anyone would love it – even people who aren't saying to themselves, “Why Nathan Fillion, you are so correct – you ARE 'as pretty a piece of flesh as any in Messina'”, or tearing up when Benedict says to Beatrice, “Why, my Lady Disdain, are you yet living?”  I was going to go on some more about the casting and the themes of the play and how much I want to live in Joss's house but I really think you should just go see the movie.  And be prepared to sigh a happy little sigh at the end.

Much Ado About Nothing is in theatres now, and you can check your local listings at Fandango and Movietickets. More information at IMDB. Joss Whedon also composed the score, which is available now at Amazon and iTunes.

Comments are Closed

  1. 1

    I saw this last night, too, and I totally agree with you. I sighed at the end. It’s decidedly one of the best romantic comedy movies ever!
    I can’t speak to this as someone unfamiliar with Joss’s work or the actors’ work (I think I’ve worn out my Firefly DVDs), but the context of doing Shakespeare is pretty different from their current collective body of work, and they uniformly handled it extremely well. I’ve seen a number of productions of Much Ado About Nothing, and this ranks among the best of them. It mostly worked brilliantly.
    There were some awkward moments as a result of the modern setting, particularly the one you mention – the slut-shaming. It occurred to me, too, that it would have worked better if they had shifted the words just a bit to focus on her apparent cheating on the night before their wedding. There’s also a cringe-worthy racial reference near the end. But since Joss decided to go with Shakespeare’s exact words, he had to contend with the products of the time when they were written.
    I can’t say enough about how incredible Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof were as Beatrice and Benedick.  They’ve now replaced Emma Thompson and Kenneth Brannagh in my mind when I picture the two characters. When I heard who Joss had cast in the parts, I really wondered if they would be up to it. Are they ever! And I can’t believe you didn’t mention what a hoot Nathan Fillion is as Dogberry!
    My only quibble was the shortened graveyard scene, which is effectively Claudio’s grovel (since he can’t do it directly to Hero), and it’s really needed after his ugly behavior at the wedding. It helps to show the audience that he’s learned a deeply needed lesson.
    Still, it’s a totally wonderful production. I’m kind of hoping that Joss will do some more Shakespeare.

  2. 2
    Darlynne says:

    Loved it, loved the music so much I bought Sigh No More when I got home. I know that most of my enjoyment came from the cast—and I also liked that Whedon chose to portray Conrad as a woman, which added an unexpected element—so I can’t speak to your question. My sister saw it and we haven’t had a chance to talk about it. I’m not sure it appealed to her as much.

    Alexis Denisof’s skill as an actor, and with physical comedy, really shone and Nathan Fillion was so wonderfully “an ass.” But Amy Acker, oh yes, she was outstanding. I will see this again and buy the DVD and listen to the music, all the while feeling, as you did CarrieS, that I’ve come to the home of good friends I haven’t seen in a long time.

  3. 3
    Darlynne says:

    Argh. Sorry about the italics. Can you turn them off if this post doesn’t do it?

  4. 4
    jimthered says:

    Speaking as someone living in NC, I am so annoyed I’ll probably have to wait for this to be released on dvd before I see it.  Sigh (not the blissful kind)…

  5. 5

    @jimthered: Where are you in NC?  I saw it in NC.  It’s showing right now in Greensboro.

  6. 6
    Michelle in Texas says:

    I SOOOO want to see this! But in our small town, IF it comes, it’ll be a month or more! I’ve messaged our little theater and put in a request. Fingers crossed!

    Capcha-thing95-Dr. Seuss has gotten out of control!

  7. 7
    Heather Valli says:

    I saw this at the Carolina Theater in Durham, NC. There was a Studio Ghibli festival in the larger space, so Much Ado was in a 90 person space. It made for a very intimate-feeling movie—almost like I could just take a few steps and walk into Joss’s house. (If only . . . ) I left with my cheeks aching from smiling so much. Acker was amazine! And Fillion’s Dogberry was the best I’ve seen.

  8. 8
    Joanna S. says:

    I saw this just a couple of days ago with a friend, and it ticked two big boxes for me:

    1. Something directed by Joss Whedon, starring his friends & known actors with his brother, Jed, also involved

    2. An intelligent modernization of Shakespeare that does homage to the past but doesn’t modernize it beyond recognition.

    As a huge fan of Whedon and as a Shakespeare scholar this was wonderful.  Just wonderful.

  9. 9
    Elyse says:

    Omg I’m so excited to see this

  10. 10
    Dread Pirate Rachel says:

    God, I can’t wait to see this. Much Ado is my favorite Shakespeare work, and obviously I’m a massive fan of Joss Whedon. I love the adaptation with Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson (despite Keanu Reeves’s best efforts to ruin it), and I am so looking forward to watching this cast of very beloved actors do an original take on the play. I saw a stage performance that was set in post-WWII Italy, and the update worked marvelously.

    I’ll be interested to see if I find the slut-shaming as jarring as you do. As an atheist who comes from a religious background (missionary parents, no joke), I’ve seen a whole hell of a lot of it. Before I got married, it seemed like everyone and their dog asked me if I was a virgin. I lied and said yes to every one of them because I was so afraid of rejection and ostracism. Now I just DGAF. Nevertheless, I don’t think it’s that much of a stretch for modern times, especially for people who have a very traditional interpretation of their religion.

    By the way, all those upstanding Christians who felt entitled to know the state of my hymen? They all stopped speaking to me when I left their church. At that point, I hadn’t even rejected religion; I just was no longer attending their house of worship, and for that grave offense, I lost every one of my friends. It’s okay, though; I made new ones who are more fun. :-)

  11. 11
    Zoe says:

    I actually wan’t that big a fan? I liked most of it, and the performances were all decent-to-good, but it didn’t blow me away. There were a few moments that jarred heavily (like, if you’re going to cut the anti-Semetic joke, why leave in the ‘Ethiope’ line? Especially if you don’t have a single non-white actor in a speaking part) Some of the shots were just silly (like the bit in the pool) and seemed to be made more to look cool then anything else.

    But my main issue was that it’s not really a plot that works in a modern setting. And if you’re going to claim “Shakespeare!” as an excuse not to deal with that, it’s REALLY jarring to have completely contradicting plot lines. Basically a story where Hero would be forever disgraced for not being a virgin (which in the script is treated as far more significant then that she had a dalliance the night before her wedding) then you can’t really also have Beatrice and Benedick having a one-night-stand as well.

    Mainly, I thought it was an interesting experiment, but the exact same film without Whedon would never be released, and I don’t really grant him too much leeway on the obvious limitations because they were all self-imposed.

  12. 12
    Cate says:

    Saw it a couple of weeks ago, and loved it ! But – Oh how I would LOVE to transplant Nathan Fillion & Andrew Lenk into Ken Branagh’s fab version –  Fillion is fantastic in Shakespeare ( Micheal Keaton was just unintelligable – and awful, -truly – just awful !) 
      And as for Sean Maher’s Don John –  Evil genius much ?  Keanu Reaves sucked like a   rotting lemon
      Oh – who am I kidding –  I’m a Whedonista.  I’d love to see what JW could do with Twelfth Night :)

  13. 13
    Mik says:

    Just saw this last night. LOVE LOVE LOVE LOVE. GUSH GUSH GUSH. And also – is it just me, or does anyone else want to have all of Amy Acker’s dresses from the movie?

    With regards to the slut-shaming, I actually felt like it really worked (which surprised me). Even though Claudio’s language speaks to the lack of purity, I think it played off as more about the cheating from him. While this wasn’t true for Leonato, I think that makes sense. And Clark Gregg played it so beautifully – like there was a conflict between his public shame of his daughter, who might ruin his reputation by association, and his shame of feeling like that about his daughter. I’ve never felt like that was the context of the play, and I loved that Whedon and Gregg were able to make it so.

    And if there is a double standard, with the opening flashback, isn’t there a double standard in real life? It’s not that you had sex – it’s that EVERYONE KNOWS YOU HAD SEX. I think that added some layers that made it work better for modern times.

  14. 14
    Cate says:

    Re : Slut shaming
      Have just had time to sit down & read all the comments properly – and I would like to say that one of the reasons that Much Ado is as relevant today as it was in the 16th century is not just because it’s the prototype of the battle of the sexes comedy – BUT – because even in the 21st century, we have a real problem (in the UK as well as other parts of the globe )  with so called ” Honour Killings “.
      And the appalling treatment meted out to Hero is as prevelant today within various communities ( and I’m talking 3rd & 4th generation families – not 1st generation ),as it was in the 16th century .
      So, for me , the dreadful predicament that Hero finds herself in, and the utter lack of parental support throughout – strikes a very real chord.
        …. Now then – I dare you to tell me that Mr S is irrelevant in the 21st century !

  15. 15
    kkw says:

    Keanu Reeves tried his best, it’s true, which is almost always enough to ruin a movie, and he had able assistance from Keaton, but clearly there is no force on earth that can counter the glory of Denzel Washington in black leather pants. Plus, you know, sparkling dialogue and sexual tension and Shakespeare and whatever.

    I was kind of surprised Whedon chose this one, not that it isn’t clearly awesome and one of my favorites and all, but it’s one of the only Shakespeare plays that already has a great movie adaptation. But of course I would go see it.

    Alas, it does not appear to be playing in Bangkok.

  16. 16
    Dowsabel says:

    I don’t know what it’s like to watch Much Ado without having so many happy associations with the cast.

    I can answer that question! It’s absolutely enchanting. I watched it with a friend who is just as new to the Whedonverse and she was blown away too. We ambled off for dinner and a gossip afterwards and spent most of our time talking about the movie and the cast and how impressive they all were. I thought the leads were great but there wasn’t a bad or even a mediocre performance in the film and it was consistently gorgeous to look at and listen to.

    I really liked the one night stand. It pointed up the difference between Claudio’s callowness and Benedick’s sophistication. For all the fooling around, Benedick behaved like a grown-up when it mattered. He didn’t join in with the slut-shaming, he was horrified by the behaviour of his friends and he knew perfectly well that his bride wasn’t a virgin and didn’t care.

  17. 17
    Shannon says:

    I thought about honor killings too with the Hero / slut-shaming scene as well.  I’m glad that the relatively new, outside of religious circles standard is that women can be sexual beings within certain constraints.  You can debate those—thinking fidelity, discretion.

    Anyhow, back to the movie.  I didn’t know the back story that this was filmed at a home in B&W over 12 days.  It explains the intimacy of the film.

    The slap-stick humor really worked for me in addition to the romance elements.

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