7/4/2013 - Beatrice + Benedick, Hero + Claudio, me + Joss Whedon — such are the romances of Much Ado About Nothing, a bubbly little performance of Shakespeare's rom-com.
As I learned from the Whedon chip implanted in my brain and from what’s been reported in several places, Joss Whedon (creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly and other geekeries), while on vacation after directing The Avengers, shot Much Ado About Nothing with several of his regular actors at his totally awesome house. (Apparently, The WB paid pretty well — his kitchen alone is the stuff of HGTV fantasy.) The movie is in black and white, the dress is modern but the lines are Shakespeare's.
Don Pedro (Reed Diamond — who appeared in Whedon's Fox TV show Dollhouse) has returned from the wars to Messina with his men Claudio (Fran Kranz) and Benedick (Alexis Denisof) — or, as you might know them, Topher from Dollhouse and Wesley from Buffy /Angel. Also with them is John (Sean Maher, Simon from Firefly), Don Pedro's villainous brother, and his men. They all have come to stay at the home of Leonarto (Clark Gregg, the Marvelverse's Agent Phil Coulson). Claudio is eager to reconnect with Leonarto's daughter, Hero (Jillian Morgese). He is desperately in love with her, a fact that Benedick mocks. He'll never get married, he says, and, as if to prove it, doubles down his war of venomous words with Beatrice (Amy Acker, Fred on Angel and Dr. Claire Saunders on Dollhouse). She hates him, he hates her — except maybe whatever they feel isn't hate and has something to do with an opening shot that suggests at more between the two of them.
All this goofy love in the air seems to John like the opportunity to cause trouble. First, he tries to convince Claudio that Don Pedro is after Hero himself. Then, when that fails, he tries to find other ways to bust up Claudio and Hero. Meanwhile, Don Pedro, Leonarto, et al., are in sweeter cahoots to get Beatrice and Benedick to fall in love with each other.
Much Ado About Nothing is effervescent — it is sweet, dizzying, just a little silly and happy-making, like pink champagne. As a lit major and a Whedon fan, I represent exactly the audience for this movie. Yes, maybe not every actor seems super comfortable at all times with the Shakespearean language and, sure, Nathan Fillion's role as Dogberry, the town lawman and designated malaproping comic relief, is so goofy as to occasionally feel like a skit in some kind of acting class, but I couldn't help but to be enchanted.
The movie is set in a kind of fantasy land blend of modern-day (they get "letters" on their cell phones) and Renaissance-era Sicily (John and Pedro are "princes" who have just returned from "the wars" with no real explanation given). And, it works. That a central plot point involves whether or not a female character is a virgin, which would seem to defy the logic of the world the movie itself sets up, somehow doesn't knock us out of the flow of the film. The movie convinced you to just go with it — so, sure, Hero is set to marry a guy she seems to barely know, it's really important to people that Beatrice be married. These things might not make sense if you insisted on the movie taking place in 2013 Los Angele,s but in this black-and-white fairy-tale land of martinis, California-Spanish architecture and Elizabethan English, why not?
A good part of the praise for making all this literary magic work goes to the performers, who across the board do a surprisingly good job of making Shakespeare's language feel fresh and lively. Acker's Beatrice and Denisof's Benedick really do feel like the proto-sweethearts on which all rom-com couples have been molded. Denisof seems to find his rhythm as a good-time-seeking Benedick and performs his scenes with Acker like a couple of dance-pros doing a well-practiced waltz. Acker's Beatrice seems like a sister to Elizabeth Bennet — feisty, opinionated, a bit too smart for her own good, fun at parties.
The real shock was Diamond, an actor I know mostly from playing assorted detectives and agents on shows like Homicide and Bones. The most of any performer, he made Don Pedro's lines feel as natural as any modern dialogue. He helped to drive home that, as old as the words are, the sentiments are eternally fresh. A-
Rated PG-13 for some sexuality and brief drug use. Directed and adapted for the screen by Joss Whedon from the play by William Shakespeare, Much Ado About Nothing is an hour and 49 minutes long and distributed by Roadside Attractions.