If you’re a cult figure known for cranking out small projects routinely denied mainstream success and suddenly make the third most successful movie of all time, what do you do next? If you’re Joss Whedon the answer to that burning question is apparently: make a zero budget Shakespeare comedy in your house with friends. The king of the geeks apparently had a secret Shakespeare obsession for years and would stage readings of his favorite plays in his house with friends. Then, inexplicably when he was given a brief break from the punishing Avengers schedule, he decided to turn one of those wine-drunk house parties into a movie in twelve days rather than taking a vacation. It sounds like the ultimate example of a self-indulgent vanity project, and yet with Whedon being Whedon, it’s actually an incredibly charming little movie routed in everything that his big old blockbuster wasn’t. Sweet, small, goofy, and surprisingly accessible, this edition of Much Ado About Nothing probably ranks as one of the most breezily entertaining Shakespeare adaptation ever splattered all over a big screen. The flick obviously won’t have the billion-dollar appeal of his last project, but the audiences who it’s made for should walk out of the theater with the same dumb grin on their faces as the comic book geeks wandering out of The Avengers in a daze to buy their next ticket.
The cast was cobbled together from friends that Whedon made on various projects like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly, and Dollhouse. Their experience with Shakespeare varied from lead actor Alexis Denisof who spent time in a Shakespeare theater company to an extra who charmed Joss on The Avengers. Their collective experience (or lack there of) is exactly what gives Much Ado About Nothing it’s charm. This isn’t a handsomely mounted Kenneth Branagh project filled with stars and stage veterans acting their guts out to commit their ultimate poetic recital to film. Instead everyone involved plays the dramatics down.
The play itself may be beautifully written, but it’s ultimately a trifle: a romantic comedy before the likes of Katherine Heigl gave the genre a bad name. The dialogue is performed in a loose, almost tossed off manner. The actors play it as if it were a contemporary comedy in prose and somehow it works. Filled with subtle slapstick around the edges and sardonic line deliveries, the centuries old comedy feels like something new and fresh. Sure there are moments where dated presentations of household power and shivery sit awkwardly with the home movie aesthetic, but rarely is it ever distracting. Those moments tend to only serve as cues to the source for viewers who might easily forget they’re watching a Shakespeare adaptation once their ears adjust to the language.
Plot summaries seem pointless given that most folks who stuck around English classes beyond middle school probably sucked this up at one point (or at least the Coles Notes). Two stubborn perpetually single types are tricked into falling in love, two star-crossed lovers are deceived by staged infidelity, silliness ensues, and they all live happily ever after. It’s all classic stuff, cause you know, this is where the conventions were formed. Whedon shoots in black and white on 5D consumer cameras to create an aesthetic both beautifully designed and sweetly tossed off. He’s got a pretty nice house, so beauty shots pop up, but for those most part he just sits back to let the actors run the show and they’re all more than happy to do so.
Amy Acker and Denisof do most of the heavy lifting as the cynical leads tricked into hopelessly head-over-heels warm fuzzies and deliver refreshingly modern spins on the old types. Acker feels like she wandered off the set of a particularly well-written Nichole Holofcener movie and spits out her monologues with such enchanting comedic ease that it would make her a star with contemporary language. Denisof plays his stubborn buffoon role with such naturalism that all other iconic performances disappear from memory and he delivers several slapstick beats far funnier than they have any write to be.
That duo essentially are the whole movie, but everyone around the edges delivers their own little surprises. Jillian Morgese’s innocent Hero will seduce anyone with a pulse. Clark Agent Coulson Gregg proves his scene stealing chops aren’t limited to Marvel productions. Nathan Fillion mines so much comedy out of Dogberry that no one will notice his security officer sequences take place in a barely concealed basement. Sure, there’s an awkward line delivery here and there and not everyone is as comfortable wrapping their lips around the Shakespearian English, but so much of film’s appeal comes from its homemade qualities that these breaks in consistency only add to that charm.
Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing really shouldn’t have worked. The film should have been a private party and a DVD Christmas gift to the cast that perhaps popped up on the internet for his most obsessed fans. But, making a movie as successful as The Avengers means that pretty well any follow up project will land in theaters and thankfully his tossed off Shakespeare experiment is good enough to deserve all the added attention. If you’re someone who despises Shakespeare (in which case, what’s wrong with you?) perhaps it’s worth avoiding and there’s a good chance that some of Whedon’s fans will be disappointed by the lack of vampires, spaceships, and explosions. However, the fact that someone has made a Shakespearian comedy that will move and tickle audiences beyond the knowing, pipe-smoking academic set is somewhat of a minor miracle. It’s still a very small movie and more of an experiment amongst friends than a big theatrical release, yet with those standards in mind it also works infinitely better than it has any right to. It will probably be the most effective romantic comedy of the summer, and to pull that out of an ancient play with a budget comprised of loose change and IOUs is a no less impressive achievement than juggling five iconic superheroes in an earth-saving battle. Just, you know…smaller.