Leonato (Clark Gregg), the governor of Messina, is visited by his friend Don Pedro (Reed Diamond) who is returning from a victorious campaign against his rebellious brother Don John (Sean Maher). Accompanying Don Pedro are two of his officers: Benedick (Alexis Denisof) and Claudio (Fran Kranz). While in Messina, Claudio falls for Leonato’s daughter Hero (Jillian Morgese), while Benedick verbally spars with Beatrice (Amy Acker), the governor’s niece. The budding love between Claudio and Hero prompts Don Pedro to arrange with Leonato for a marriage.
In the days leading up to the ceremony, Don Pedro, with the help of Leonato, Claudio and Hero, attempts to sport with Benedick and Beatrice in an effort to trick the two into falling in love. Meanwhile, the villainous Don John, with the help of his allies Conrade (Riki Lindhome) and Borachio (Spencer Treat Clark), plots against the happy couple, using his own form of trickery to try to destroy the marriage before it begins.
A series of comic and tragic events may continue to keep the two couples from truly finding happiness, but then again perhaps love may prevail.
The unofficial distinction between Shakespeare’s comedies and tragedies is that the comedies end with weddings, and the tragedies with deaths. That would qualify Much Ado About Nothing as a comedy even if it weren’t laugh-out-loud funny…and more than five hundred years on, it can still make audiences laugh, even when it’s presented in language we don’t understand as well as its original Elizabethan-era viewers did.
Joss Whedon’s new screen adaptation of the play–filmed in black and white over just twelve days, and quite literally made in his own backyard (and house)–doesn’t alter that traditional language, but it feels contemporary. Although the setting is clearly present day, nothing in the text suggests modernization of the story itself; the characters are still understood to be post-medieval Italian nobility, but are in everyday 21st-century clothing, drive cars, and are otherwise presented as being of our own time. Much of the cast has prior documented experience with Whedon–Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof (Angel), Nathan Fillion and Sean Maher (Firefly), Clark Gregg (The Avengers)–but their prior experience with Shakespeare is more varied (or, at least, less well documented). Some of the actors rise to the challenge of the material better than others–although that’s something that can be said about pretty much every production of every script that’s ever existed–but none of them fares noticeably badly.
The thing about Shakespearean comedy is that when you note the tropes that it employs, you have to make a secondary note that it’s the birthplace many of those tropes. The witty verbal sparring between a man and a woman who will surprise no one but themselves by ending up together (screwball comedy); the plots and counterplots of one set of characters against another, and the misunderstandings that result (“hijinks ensue”); and the physical missteps and pratfalls that alter a scene’s mood (slapstick)–they’re all readily recognizable, and excellently rendered, in Much Ado About Nothing.
I’ll confess that I’m not really a Shakespeare junkie–I’m an appreciator, but not an especially knowledgeable one–but my enthusiasm for this interpretation of Much Ado… has been high ever since we had the chance to see Whedon and several members of the cast and crew in a panel presentation at WonderCon 2013. I’m still enthused, and I want to see this film again, more than once. I’ll confess that it’s partly so that I can catch more of the dialogue, but it’s also because this story, and this presentation, is just a delight, and I was delighted to be delighted by it.
Much Ado About Nothing is currently playing in Los Angeles, New York City, and San Francisco; it goes into wide release on June 21. My husband and I purchased our own tickets to see it in the Cinerama Dome at the ArcLight Hollywood.