Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing delivers its lines half-cut, swirling the last mouthfuls of wine around in its glass, at a party. Everything is loose. Which is fair: much of the action is a party, half-cut, but there are always more mouthfuls to be found.
Or bottles, anyway, half-killed. They fill every surface in the kitchen. And that swirling lilt, the swish of the legs, that’s where much of the appeal of this adaptation lies, how casual and playful it chooses to be. You can tell that everyone is having a good time. It’s raw, in the sense that they were working with a strict time constraint and things are left imperfect, the cast uneven. That is, for me, part of its charm, Much Ado can’t–and shouldn’t–carry the same imperiousness and crystalline perfection of some of Shakespeare’s other works. It can froth and it can maybe stumble, like a drunken pair of would-be lovers exiting out the side-gate.
But some of the performances are simply fantastic. Amy Acker’s rendition of Beatrice would steal the show if Beatrice wasn’t already central; she has the strongest grip on the text, and wields it–appropriately–like a knife. Reed Diamond, Fran Kranz, Clark Gregg all do a great job. Alexis Denisof falters occasionally as Benedick, but has such a strong grip on the physical comedy that he makes up for himself.
In terms of stylistic and directorial choices, the casualness again rears its head, and for the most part it works on an even keel, although it could have flirted with farce a little more, allowed the actors to move further into exaggeration. Sometimes, I questioned its approach to the soliloquies–at one point Benedick delivers one while running up and down the stairs, and the way the moments is framed feels forced. The cinematography is crisp and clean and allows for a lot of texture, allows its party to be sensual and flip–much like Beatrice evading the irritating advances of a suitor who can’t seem to grasp the concept of “no” without bothering to acknowledge him–without feeling the need to topple over into the bacchanalian excesses of, say, Taymor’s Titus. Whedon’s Much Ado has little to prove, offers you a glass and holds out a hand.
And of course, it’s not without its flourishes.
As if taking a moment to comment on the fact that Claudio–one of our erstwhile lovers, enamoured with Hero–is at best a complete asshole, Whedon places him silently standing submerged in the pool, drink in hand and snorkeling gear on his face, when Don John shows up with his minions, intent on sowing seeds of misogyny in his heart.
I know he’s one of the romantic leads, but you kind of have to hate Claudio, you know?
This version of Much Ado is a small movie–which is a relief in some ways after Whedon’s larger (and genre-heavy) endeavour with Avengers, the filming of which is nestled around the filming of this. I appreciate way it can be held in the hands and breathed in, and it’s very worth it for Amy Acker’s performance in particular, as well as the substance and depth of the environment that we move through. It’s nice to see Whedon push himself in a different direction, and it’s nice to see him working with such a wide cast of actors that he’s developed such close working relationships with, because it allows him to coax some really funny, measured performances. This film is like lying back in the summer grass and breathing in the early evening air.