A great many people regard Joss Whedon a genius and it is not hard to understand why this writer/director/producer has acquired a cult following. Yes, for the most part the stuff Whedon creates is different, but it is also very, very good. Whether it is for television or cinema screens, Whedon delivers consistently, even if the studio suits don’t always get it. Following the enormous success of the ground breaking Buffy the Vampire Slayer television series (and the spin-off Angel), Whedon has followed up with two more excellent, but criminally under-appreciated series’ for the small screen in Firefly and Dollhouse. His first foray into motion pictures as a Director came via Serenity, a continuation of the Firefly universe on the back of fanatical support for the show that was seemingly at odds with the views of the clueless network executives who canned it after just one season.
Following Serenity, Whedon wrote and produced the ingenious horror flick The Cabin in the Woods before returning to the director’s chair for The Avengers, the most anticipated, and ultimately, most successful superhero movie in many a year. With The Avengers, Whedon showed that for superhero movies to work, you can’t take the premise seriously and he used humour to great effect to construct a movie in which the silliness is celebrated at the expense of the earnestness that plagues so many other films of this type (Zack Snyder please take note).
Despite, or perhaps because of, the success of The Avengers, Whedon has changed tack considerably for his current release, a contemporary version of William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. Far removed from the $200 million spend on his comic book epic, Much Ado About Nothing was shot on location in Whedon’s house on a miniscule budget. With an ensemble cast who do a terrific job with a story that, like so much of Shakespeare’s work, is both bonkers and brilliant, this black and white rendering is an absolute treat. Of course, those who refuse to embrace Shakespeare will no doubt resist this film, but there is so much to like that it’s hard to care about anybody silly enough to bypass what is a cinematic rarity – a genuine laugh-out-loud comedy.
The story opens with Don Pedro (Reed Diamond), having returned from a victorious campaign against his rebellious brother Don John (Sean Maher), arriving at the home of his friend Leonato (Clark Gregg). Accompanying Don Pedro are Benedick (Alexis Denisof) and Claudio (Fran Kranz), who falls instantly in love with Leonato’s daughter Hero (Jillian Morgese). Benedick, meanwhile, finds himself embroiled in a series of verbal stoushes with Leonato’s niece Beatrice (Amy Acker). A wedding for Claudio and Hero is hastily arranged, only to have the ceremony jeopardised by trickery at the hands of Don John and his allies Conrade (Riki Lindhome) and Borachio (Spencer Treat Clark). Meanwhile, with moves also afoot to bring Benedick and Beatrice together, a series of comic events play out as both of the budding relationships are required to withstand a series of setbacks if they are to prevail.
Denisof and Acker are hilarious as the bickering Benedick and Beatrice and their love-hate relationship is the highlight of the film. Whilst both characters possess a cocky, self-assured public persona that results in their incessant squabbling, it is self-doubt and insecurity that ultimately threatens to stand in the way of them embracing their love for each other. Whilst there are a few bum notes, such as the somewhat staid performances from Kanz and Morgese, the sheer hilarity of it all overwhelms any shortcomings. Gregg is fine as the eager-to-please but seriously compromised Leonato, while Whedon regular Nathan Fillion (Firefly, Serenity and TV’s Castle) is gold as the bumbling, clueless Detective Dogberry.
Whedon has done a terrific job in bringing the story to the screen but, make no mistake; this film doesn’t possess any of the blockbuster staples in the Hollywood tradition. There are no a-listers in the cast, no CGI, no explosions, no sex, drugs or violence. Furthermore, it is presented in black and white and the dialogue, for the most part, remains true to Shakespeare’s original tome. However, it is not what the film lacks that matters, because few films are this much fun, demonstrating once again the sheer quality and timelessness of Shakespeare’s writing.