It’s a feast for a Whedonite. I found myself squealing “Topher!” when Fran Kranz came on screen and asking myself, “Where have I seen her?” practically every time a new actor appeared. But it’s not just for Joss Whedon fans. And it’s not just for Shakespeare fans either. Much Ado About Nothing is one of those smart, funny, interesting, clever, and artistic films that the thinking viewer hopes will come out of Hollywood, but comes too rarely.
Plenty has been written about how this Much Ado came to be. Joss Whedon had wanted to do Shakespeare for years and found himself with time between finishing filming on The Avengers and post-production. His gracious wife gave up vacation so they could pursue the project and they gathered together a group of friends in the industry to make it happen.
I remember when the word broke that Joss Whedon was making the movie. They’d just finished filming and they had managed to keep it completely under the radar until that point. It was the indie scene’s fairy tale: a major director, a big name who had just made a Marvel superheroes movie, had stepped back and done what independent filmmakers do every day – made a movie at home with no studio backing, no plan for distribution, and practically no budget.
It was a move that said true art is not dead in Hollywood. It was a move that said there’s value in a group of people creating together. It was a move that said risks are still worth taking, even though our culture’s artistic industries allow less and less room for them.
Of course, the independent filmmaker who hasn’t ground it out in the industry, found a cult following, and crossed over to big-time studio success probably won’t follow quite the same happily-ever-after path Whedon’s little project has followed. There was immediate buzz about the film; before it even entered post production people wanted to see it. They took it to Toronto for the 2012 Film Festival last August and Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions picked it up for limited theatrical release. Risks may still be worth taking, but in a Fast and Furious 6 culture, they’re not going to make the mainstream.
That’s a shame, because Whedon’s Much Ado stands up to even the expectations of the Shakespeare/Whedonite that I am.
There’s an acrobatic act going on during the party scene—two women dancing in the air as they hang from a tree over the crowd. The loveliness of that has hung with me since I left the theatre. It was high-wire ballet, moving sculpture.
Joss Whedon took something very old and made it very new. It’s a tad jarring to have Leonato enter with a smart phone, saying, “I have here in this letter…” So to bridge the gap, Whedon gave us a sense of place—the house his wife designed—and a sense of timelessness by filming in black and white. The textures of the house are emphasized by the lack of color—the stucco and wrought iron and wood grains and glass—each lend themselves to the feel of the whole film. The textures of the characters’ clothing, from the sheer fabric of Beatrice’s dresses to Don Pedro and Leonato’s smooth suits and ties even to Benedick’s sweat suit in one scene, both add to the individual characters and delineate one from another.
The shot of Claudio and Don Pedro leading the procession of mourners for Hero’s funeral is absolutely breathtaking. The characters, dressed in black, line a long path down the hill, their eyes lowered, each holding a single candle in their hands as they walk. Whedon’s somber arrangement of “Heavily” (Shakespeare’s lyric for the funeral) adds to the beauty of the moment.
Hero and Claudio steal the show on an emotional level. Fran Kranz’s earnest conversation with Don Pedro about his feelings for Hero, his somewhat-drunk unbelieving stupor when he’s told Don Pedro did not betray him, his portrayal of broken-hearted anger at Hero’s faithlessness before the wedding—all of them tug the viewer’s heart, from joy to frustration, from pity to anger.
Jillian Morgese’s Hero is understated and delicate. We smile with her at her teasing and loving relationship with her father (Clark Gregg’s Leonato). We enjoy her moments of young love with Claudio. Our hearts break with hers as she’s cast off at the altar, not knowing why she’s been so falsely accused. We sorrow with her as she watches Claudio grieve her at the funeral, and we thrill when she says, “One Hero died defiled, but I live. And as surely as I live, I am a maid.”
Amy Acker (Beatrice) stands out on an emotional level as well. She is able to balance the downright funny with the deeply moving, and to deftly go back and forth between the two, making them both believable.
Beatrice gets a good portion of the humor as well. There’s a scene where she, in the midst of a having a conversation, is fending off the flirtations of a man. The joke is completely visual; there’s not a single line of dialogue directed toward him, but the scene gets funnier and funnier each time she dodges his advances.
Alexis Denisof shines as Benedick in the funny scenes. His performance is the most slapstick of them all, and unfortunately makes the more serious scenes a bit harder to believe. But when he’s funny, he’s fantastic. There’s brotherly banter with Claudio, bravado with Beatrice, and absolute hilarity in the scene when he listens in on Don Pedro, Leonato, and Claudio talking about Beatrice’s love for him.
The humor isn’t limited to the over-the-top scenes. There are bits and pieces, looks and jokes throughout most of the lighter moments that add to the layers of funny. Watch the characters in the background of any scene—Clark Gregg’s Leonato in particular—there are jewels to be found.
Perhaps the funniest of all, though, is Nathan Fillion’s Dogberry. And perhaps the greatest compliment I can give him as an actor is that he made the choice to enunciate. So often Dogberry is played with extreme silliness that detracts from the hilarity of the lines Shakespeare wrote for him. Fillion’s performance of Dogberry as the bumbling cop lets his utterly mixed up vocabulary shine, and Dogberry is better (and so much funnier) for it.
The fairy tale of big-time-director-goes-indie wouldn’t hold much weight if they hadn’t made a good movie. But they did. And therefore the idea of the movie shines out even brighter.
Joss Whedon is exceptionally talented. Even those who don’t really follow his genre could not argue against that. But what I like most about him is that he thinks when he makes movies and television. He’s never willing to just do what needs to be done to get something made within the confines of the system that exists.
Perhaps the best thing of all about Much Ado About Nothing is that it actually got made—that a group of friends decided they wanted to do this, made the time for it, and did it well. Limited release or no, it’s encouraging to see that something like this movie can still happen. May it encourage all artists to do what they love, and do it well, and may we see more communities of people creating art together for the love of it.