Avengers director goes light and jazzy with Much Ado About Nothing

Joss Whedon, a man whose name is synonymous with some of the most feverishly obsessed-over fantasy and science-fiction franchises of the last 20 years, is also a hardcore Shakespeare fan. In-between helming cult TV shows like “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and blockbuster epics like “The Avengers,” the writer-director frequently hosts actor friends at his house for impromptu readings of the Bard’s works.

Surprised? Don’t be; the connection makes sense the more you think about it. Like Shakespeare, Whedon is a wizard of genre who frequently pushes the boundaries of his chosen medium. Whether he’s writing about vampires, spaceships or superheroes, what shines through is his intense devotion to characters, their desires and the mechanics of language itself — much as it did for Shakespeare when he took on romance, historical epic, political intrigue and every other genre under the Elizabethan sun.

Fran Kranz in Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing. (Photo: Elsa Guillet-Chapuis)

Fran Kranz in Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing. (Photo: Elsa Guillet-Chapuis)

Whedon’s first filmed Shakespeare adaptation, “Much Ado About Nothing,” was shot in 12 days in and around his own house with a skeleton crew. The familiar tale of how two couples unite amidst plots both foul and fair is set in modern times, and has clearly been shot on the cheap. The facts behind its execution might point to a tossed-off lark, but the truth is that Whedon and company actually have made much ado about Much Ado. It’s obvious in the great care they’ve taken to stage sequences like a pivotal masquerade, which is bathed in a wonderful lushness, with canted angles and lawn-party outdoor lighting capturing contortionist acts and lounge singers.

Half the fun for longtime devotees of the director (they prefer to be called “Whedonites”) will be the giddy realization that the man has been cultivating a modern-day Lord Chamberlain’s Men all this time. The cast of “Much Ado” has made frequent appearances in Whedon’s other works, most notably Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof, both from the “Buffy” spin-off “Angel.” The two fall easily into the rhythms of Beatrice and Benedick, the gullible couple born to hate to love each other.

The always-affable Clark Gregg, better known as Agent Coulson from “The Avengers”, sets the proceedings in motion as Leonato, the lord (here a wealthy SoCal man of undetermined importance) who welcomes all parties into his home. He facilitates the starry-eyed union of his daughter Hero (lithe newcomer Jillian Morgese) and visitor Claudio (a charming Fran Kranz, “The Cabin in the Woods”). And later, Whedon mainstay Nathan Fillion gets the rolling-in-the-aisles laughter as bumbling guard Dogberry, a man whose ego and suit are both two sizes too big.

In word and deed, this adaptation is quite faithful. When Whedon does deviate in significant ways from the text, it feels like a cool jazz cover in a funky key. There are hints as the film opens that Beatrice and Benedick had enjoyed an affair prior to the events of the play, and the mystery of what could have driven them apart hangs over the merry proceedings like a dark shadow. Elsewhere, Don Jon’s henchman Conrade becomes a henchwoman (Riki Lindhome) so the villain (Sean Maher, “Firefly”) can pleasure her as he dictates his plot, pulling away midspeech in a sly act of cruelty.

Kenneth Branagh’s own epically tuned adaptation of Much Ado, from 1993, still reverberates in many a mind as the definitive filmed take on the play. Certainly it remains the most ambitious in scope, with swords and horses and an expansive European countryside for a canvas. But with that classicalist form came a strange stuffy air, a stifling of the sort of looseness the play requires, as though the cast was performing it on an unnecessarily large and ornate stage.

By contrast, Whedon, by keeping the proceedings light and jazzy, escapes the headache of trying to fit his Shakespeare around what conventional wisdom dictates Shakespeare must look and sound like. Whedon has tapped into a unique feature of Much Ado: the fact that much of its dialogue is spoken in a performative context, be it in the language of toasts, practiced insults, masquerades, glorified threats or conspiracies. In effect, each character is putting on a show for the benefit of the others. In the breezy Santa Monica air, this becomes the stuff of effortless comedy, as the company will privately signal to one another when to dial their emotions up or down.

Even when death threats start flying, the mood still rarely rises above that of the world’s hippest garden party — and though we may never feel any true sense of danger, Don Jon’s empty posturings were always utterly beside the point. For the length of the film, we are wholly present at that party, and we feel as though there is no place we would rather tip glasses with Shakespeare than here in Whedon’s house.

Sigh no more, friends, sigh no more.

“Much Ado About Nothing” . Directed by Joss Whedon . Written by Joss Whedon, based on the play by William Shakespeare . Starts June 21 . Reviewed by Andrew Lapin

 

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