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