Humor doesn’t always travel well, in part because humor tends to be topical and rely on local language. What was humorous to a previous century or to a foreign population is not necessarily an easy sell for contemporary Americans. When it comes to William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, you have both hurdles to leap, although at least the play is written in the same language that we currently speak. Kind of.
Few people were surprised when Joss Whedon decided to film a version of Much Ado at his Santa Monica estate, back in 2011, due to his penchant for romantic banter, from the television show Buffy to the megafilm The Avengers. He chose to make the low-budget film in twelve days as a way to relax creatively while producing The Avengers. If that decision isn’t a clear sign that Mr. Whedon is capable of different lifestyle choices than most other Bardolators, then the use of his house as the set hammers home the point. The place is a mansion, of course, but it’s also a sprawling estate capable of staging incredible intimacy, full of nooks and crannies, not to mention an infinite amount of bookcases and wine glasses.
For the most part, the quick pace of the production leads to a light and fast-paced film, although there are a few scenes that would have benefited from a couple extra takes. For example, Benedick eavesdrops on some men who know he is there and are painting falsehoods in the hope to have Benedick (Alexis Denisof) fall in love with Beatrice (Amy Acker). Denisof’s physical humor induces chuckles, but the audience is left wondering how he can hear through the glass doors, which was a missed opportunity to have the conspirators purposefully open each door and window, one at a time, making sure that they capture Benedick and his imagination. Similarly, Benedick’s monologues could have been more light-hearted and heartfelt if delivered to the camera, as with Whedon’s Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog.
The cast itself is very white, which would be less remarkable if not for the African American woman in the background, who only comes to the fore to serve as the foil for Claudio’s assertion that he will marry as he’s told, even if the bride is an Ethiope (that is, black). And yet Whedon had no trouble in cutting a different bigoted line — Benedick’s oath about Beatrice that “If I do not love her, I am a Jew.” Shakespeare’s particular racism was not of the same degree as Nazi Germany or antebellum America but it was a progenitor, and worth either contextualizing or excising, rather than selectively excusing it through laughter.
The highlight for me was Nathan Fillion’s extraordinary turn as Dogsberry. He and his partner-in-crime Verges (played by Tom Lenk) bring forth the hilarity through movements and intonations that are in turns subtle and over-the-top.
The watchmen serve as the comic relief within a comedy, which is necessary as few playwrights weave such tragic possibilities into their comedies as did Shakespeare. After all, there is an actual funeral staged in the middle of this comedy, captured beautifully by Whedon’s vibrant use of black-and-white.
Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing is a fun film intended mostly for those who already enjoy the Bard and who appreciate it when Shakespearean comedies aren’t pulled down by the weight of film or video. (Any child who is forced to watch the BBC adaptations made in the late ’70s and early ’80s might be put off Shakespeare for life.) The movie works because it’s a strong original script (of course) which the director understands and treats with an appropriate mix of respect and a light touch. Much Ado About Nothing could be the title of most any romantic comedy. And if that’s your bent, this one is worth the 108 minutes.
Matthew Daube has an M.F.A. in Playwriting from Smith College and a Ph.D. in Theater and Performance Studies from Stanford University. His dissertation, “Laughter in Revolt: Race, Ethnicity, and Identity in the Construction of Stand-up Comedy” argued for the recognition of stand-up comedy as a distinct performance mode that emerged in the United States following World War II, linked to issues of race and focused on the performance of self. He is particularly interested in the intersections between humor and the performance of identity, and has published articles on the use of ethnic stereotype by the Marx Brothers and the role of the audience in stand-up comedy. Matthew has taught for multiple departments and programs at Stanford and is a founding member of the San Francisco producing company The Collected Works.