In my University of North Florida days, a literary professor of mine once called William Shakespeare “the world’s oldest soap opera writer.” This description becomes apparent when you are watching Joss Whedon’s version of The Bard’s “Much Ado About Nothing.” When stripped of the nobility of period costume and the world-renowned stage of the Globe Theater, it really does become soap opera-ish. Filmed in black and white over a period of 12 days, the movie is set in modern times and the dialogue is spoken in Shakespeare’s original prose, consisting of early modern English. We’ve seen this formula implemented before in Baz Lurmann’s “Romeo and Juliet.” Up front, I have never been a big fan of this juxtaposition, but this is strictly a matter of personal taste. If you like it, you like it. If you don’t, you don’t.
For those not familiar with the classic tale of love, it begins with Leonato, the governor of Messina (played by The New Adenture’s of Old Christine’s Clark Gregg), being visited at his manor by dear friend Don Pedro (Reed Diamond), who had just returned from a triumph against his rebellious brother Don John (Sean Maher). Along for the ride are two of his officers, Benedick (Alexis Denisof) and Claudio (Fran Kranz). While there, Claudio falls for Leonato’s daughter, Hero, and a marriage between them is quickly set in motion. With love in the air, Leonato, Don Pedro and Claudio attempt to trick Benedick and Leonato’s niece, Beatrice (Amy Acker)-who cynically bickers with Benedict throughout the movie about the true nature of what love is-into falling in love as a lark. Antagonist Don John does not like this, and conspires to thwart the amorous effort with the help of his allies Conrade and Borachio, who may as well have been 1980’s era James Spader from “Pretty in Pink.”
The characters spent a lot of time drinking wine around a kitchen island, which gave it a feel of TBS’s “Cougartown,” albeit in Jim Jarmusch’s “Stranger than Paradise” visual style and Shakespearean lingo. The film centers on the play’s philosophies of love and the darker side of “arranged” marriage, but Whedon also allows it to be silly, and often crowbars odd slapstick in between witty banter and tedium. A bloated Nathan Fillion–of Whedon’s sci-fi TV show, Firefly, fame–provides comic relief and essentially steals the movie in his small role as the bumbling detective, Dogberry, who is (sort of) onto everything going on and, in a bit of self-deprecation, describes himself in this way, “Master, sir, do not forget to specify, when time and place shall assert, that I am an ass.”
Filmed at his own home in Santa Monica, Whedon’s “Much Ado About Nothing” is obviously a labor of love. It has been reported that Whedon and his actor friends get together at his not-so-humble abode from time to time to perform Shakespeare for personal amusement, and this film seemed to be an extension of that. Sometimes it’s difficult to tell just exactly what Whedon was attempting to do with this film but, given Shakespeare’s title, perhaps that was the point in his channeling of Shakespeare’s essence. The acting and portrayals of the characters were certainly to be applauded, but they may have been better served on an actual stage where, after all, the great writings of Shakespeare were meant to be displayed. There’s no doubt that this movie was a passion for Whedon-he composed the score himself and arranged music to two songs that Shakespeare had written into the play–and the loyal cults of Whedon and Shakespeare, amongst others, will certainly extract a good deal of pleasure from thy cute, low-budget indie film.