Not Trying to Do Much of Anything: ‘Much Ado about Nothing’ (2012) Review
As with many of the Bard’s plays, Much Ado about Nothing is a 16th-century comedy which has been adapted multiple times over. The excellent 1993 version by Shakespeare veteran Kenneth Branagh for example. For a play so iconic, however, many times its influences are found not in whole story reimaginings but rather in regular films or TV shows that incorporate an element of bitter-sweet love or the tricking of two scornful rivals into falling in love with one another. Though very subtle, that is the beauty of the Bard’s work. His storylines have proved so recognizable on their own, that no one thinks to question their origins. It was, however, Shakespeare who created this multitude of archetypical fiction elements and he should be remembered for doing so.
Shot in only 12 days and at Director Joss Whedon’s personal home after principal photography on 2012’s The Avengers had wrapped up, Much Ado about Nothing is a romantic comedy following two couples on their road to marriage. After leading a successful campaign against his treasonous brother Don John (Sean Maher), the King Don Pedro (Reed Diamond) visits the Governor of Messina (Clark Gregg). Accompanied by his friends and allies Benedick (Alexis Denisof) and Claudio (Fran Kranz), the King takes it upon himself to match the Governor’s daughter Hero (Jillian Morgese) with Claudio after he learns of Claudio’s infatuation. Conversely, Benedick and the Governor’s niece Beatrice (Amy Acker) are locked in a battle of wits as is standard for them. Seeing sparks of love rather than hate, the King also decides to help Beatrice and Benedick fall in love while his scheming brother Don John tries to break Hero and Claudio apart.
Filmed for some reason in black and white and using original Shakespearean dialogue, Much Ado about Nothing is a lightweight, jaunty lazy river of a movie. It is essentially a home film made by rich people, and it is shown in the production and quality of the overall film. Starring many of Whedon’s friends from his sci-fi outings (Amy Acker, Nathan Fillion, Clark Gregg), the film wasn’t meant to compete with more ambitious Shakespeare projects. Whedon however, should be commended for the efforts he took to make this an accessible Shakespeare film. Namely, a heavy reliance on physical comedy and dedication to the traditional script. Shakespeare being Shakespeare, the genius is in the words; many of the Bard’s puns and humor come in the form of rearranged words, smart use of homonyms and a whole bag of other language tricks that would make your high-school English teacher squeal. Though Whedon’s own substantial additions to the play don’t add much and aren’t very funny, Shakespeare’s words have aged excellently and remained as hilarious today as they would have 400 years ago.
One such excellent purveyor of hilarity is the talented Amy Acker. The silver-tongued role of Beatrice fits Acker excellently. Her moments of searing wit are often and many along the film as she battles Denisof’s poorly cast Benedick. Sounding as though he read the script three times before the scene and not understanding what the words meant, Denisof gives a laughable circus-clown performance. The main problem being that although Denisof acts like a smug, cynical douchebag, he doesn't feel like one. Kranz, Gregg, Fillion and Diamond all give commendable performances and prove that Denisof’s faults were not cast-wide problems.
But, for the life of me, I still cannot figure out why the film is in black and white. Is that the only decent camera Whedon had lying around his house? Is he making a statement on the simple or not-so-simple nature of love? Or is he just a pretentious prick trying to be an “artsy” 14-year-old on Instagram? It seems we might never know due to the lack of advertising with this essentially indie-film, but personally, I’m leaning towards the third explanation. Being a relatively small play, the smaller set doesn’t hurt the film in any way and at times the black and white does work excellently such as during a shot of Kranz in a swimming pool featured heavily in posters. Mostly, though, it makes the move insipidly dull and slow; with the intimate set and cast size a little color would have given the film a particular magic present in many Shakespearean romances. Along with laughable props, a shoestring budget police station set, and uneven audio, it’s safe to say Whedon put that Avengers paycheck in a Swiss bank as soon as he got it.
Though charming in its own right and featuring a cast of talented people, Much Ado about Nothing fails to do much of anything for Shakespeare’s iconic play. Visibly low-budget and most certainly uninventive, Whedon’s lackadaisical attempt at adapting one of the Bard’s funniest works is mitigated only by Shakespeare’s timeless dialogue and storytelling ability. Truthfully, when the 1993 Branagh version exists with a better cast, crew, director, and budget, why bother with Whedon’s almost-but-not-quite-indie version?