Much Ado About Nothing: Whedonites and Shakespearians Unite

Joss Whedon, once merely the nerdy niche-genre mastermind behind such underappreciated shows as Buffy, Angel, and Firefly, finally found some real mainstream success with his recent helming of The Avengers. But immediately afterwards, as if startled by a project of his making several boatloads of money instead of being summarily cancelled, he did something unexpected. He rounded up a bunch of alums from his past shows and spent a couple of weeks playing with a Shakespeare comedy while cameras rolled.

(Okay, considering who we’re talking about, perhaps it wasn’t all that unexpected.)

The result is Much Ado About Nothing, an absolute delight for Whedonites as well as people who have no idea why the people behind them in the theater are squealing about Captain Hammer during all of Dogberry’s scenes.

I went into this movie as a fan of Joss’s TV shows. While I do enjoy Shakespeare and have a decent grounding in theater, I was honestly looking forward to seeing Laurence Dominic set Topher Brink up with that one extra from The Avengers whose dad is Agent Coulson, only to be nearly thwarted by Simon Tam if not for Malcolm Reynolds and Andrew Wells. But to my surprise, the skill of the actors involved negated the extremely strong recognition factor almost entirely. Fran Kranz was adorably earnest as Claudio, like Topher (Dollhouse) without the callousness or Marty (Cabin in the Woods) without the… uh… weed. Reed Diamond sheds the ruthless toadying he wielded as Dominic (Dollhouse) to become the affable Don Pedro. And Sean Maher channels all the creepy vibes he gave off as Simon Tam in the pilot episode of Firefly (before we found out that he wasn’t the villain) with none of the cuddliness. The only actor present who doesn’t disappear into their character is Nathan Fillion – the silliness of his role makes it impossible to forget that you’re watching the same man who orchestrated some of the best outtakes on the Firefly gag reel.

But the most enthralling performances belong to Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof. Despite the very real risk of deja vu for viewers who also watched their characters hook up in Angel, Acker and Denisof are very much Beatrice and Benedick. There is barely a trace of Winifred Burkle and Wesley Wyndham Pryce. And even if Shakespeare isn’t your thing, the movie is worth it just for the physical comedy sequence when these two overhear their friends talk about their supposed love for each other (although the sight of Amy Acker pitching violently down a flight of stairs may be very traumatic for anyone who was scarred by the Angel episode “A Hole in the World”).

As for the content, well, it’s Shakespeare. Pared down to less than two hours and set in modern times, but Shakespeare nonetheless. Untrained ears may experience a lag phase in comprehension, but the actors infuse the lines with enough energy that anyone should be able to catch the drift.

Of course, there’s the unfortunate fact that the plot hinges around a nasty bit of slut-shaming, which is so integral to the story that the only way for Joss to avoid it would have been to choose a different play. And in the final scene Joss chose to keep the cringe-inducingly racist line, “I would marry her were she an Ethiope,” but he placed Natalie Whittle very conspicuously in the background of the shot. Her inclusion got some very nervous laughs out of the mostly-white crowd in the theater with me, but to me it was a misstep. Instead of changing or omitting the line, placing a black woman in the shot reeks of hipster-ish, “I know this is racist but I’m going to say it anyway,” attitude.

Flaws aside, Much Ado About Nothing is a load of fun and a must-see for fans of Whedon’s work. Just remember to bring some tissues for your happy crying at the ending. (Especially if you ever shipped Fred and Wesley.)

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