Filmed over the period of 12 days in director Joss Whedon‘s home, Much Ado About Nothing is a low-key character-driven of version of William Shakespeare’s play that comes off quite different than the far more lavish version Kenneth Branagh dazzled audiences with two decades ago.
Set in present day, shot entirely in black-and-white, and filled with performances of several of Whedon’s favorite actors, it could be easy to dismiss the film as a vanity project. To do so would be a mistake.
The film casts two of my favorite Whedon actors in Alexis Denisof, as the quick-witted Benedick, and Amy Acker, as the sharp-tongued Beatrice. Having spent many a night in Shakespeare readings with Whedon, as well as the time together on Angel, the pair have an obvious comfort level and chemistry that would impossible to create with such a short shooting schedule.
On-screen the Acker and Denisof are terrific in every scene, both together and apart, delivering Shakespeare’s dialogue with glee and with an unexpected level of physical comedy. Drawing as much from the bard as classic screwball comedies, the leads prove deft at all the script throws at them. Adding to the humor of the piece are Nathan Fillion as Dogberry, and Fran Kranz who manages to hold his own as Claudio (although he gives his best performances in the film’s more dramatic scenes). For the film’s villain Whedon casts Sean Maher in a dark turn that may surprise Firefly fans.
For those unfamiliar with the play, the setting is simple as it revolves around two romances. The first involves the quarrelsome Benedick and Beatrice who Don Pedro (Reed Diamond) decides to trick into falling in love. And the second involves Claudio falling for Hero (Jillian Morgese), the daughter of the gathering’s host Leonato (Clark Gregg). Both stories are nearly undone by the evil machinations of Don Pedro’s brother (Maher), a malcontent who nearly destroys the blossoming love of Hero and Cladio.
In a departure from the source material, Whedon opens the film with the one-night stand of Beatrice and Claudio taking a more literal interpretation on Breatice’s speech about losing the heart of Benedict. The choice allows the actors to play on the troubled history of the pair while also providing evidence of an attraction that was present long before Don Pedro’s meddling.
Filming the entire project in under two weeks while on a break from The Avengers allowed the happy accident of allowing Gregg to stand-in when Anthony Head proved unavailable. Although I would have loved to have seen Head’s version of Leonato, Gregg proves more than up for the challenge leading a strong supporting cast that also includes Spencer Treat Clark, Riki Lindhome, Ashley Johnson, Emma Bates, and Tom Lenk (who became the only Buffy member of the cast involved after Head’s departure).
As a fan of Whedon, both Denisof and Acker, black-and-white films, and Shakespeare, I certainly fall in Much Ado About Nothing‘s target audience (and spent much of my initial viewing of the movie with a very wide grin on my face). Knowing the play and the cast so well, and under full control of the setting of his own home (Whedon his wife composed the music used in the movie), Whedon and his friends come together to stage and impromptu play that is well worth the price of admission.
The Blu-ray includes two commentary tracks: one from Whedon and a second (far rowdier) commentary track with the director and a host of the film’s stars including Denisof, Acker, Maher, Diamond, and Gregg (apparently clad in an Elizabethan man-thong). Both commentaries are interesting listens, although for different reasons. Also included are a music video and featurettes on a behind-the-scenes making of the film and the cast’s bus trip for a film festival to promote the project.
[Lions Gate. Blu-ray $24.99 / DVD $19.98]