After wrapping The Avengers in the fall of 2011, Joss Whedon, Nerd King, took a break by making a movie with his friends. In his house. Basically, Whedon threw a helluva cocktail party, had everyone speak Shakespeare, and filmed it. And the result is equal parts charming and frustrating. Charming, because it’s witty and droll and whether you’re a fan of Whedon’s previous work or not, anyone can see the genuine chemistry and real joy these actors have together. Starring a slew of Whedonites from Nathan Fillion (Castle, Firefly), Amy Acker (Cabin in the Woods, Angel), Alexis Denisof (Buffy/Angel and an unrecognizable cameo in The Avengers), Sean Maher (Firefly), Fran Kranz (Cabin in the Woods, Dollhouse) and Reed Diamond (Dollhouse), to more recent converts like Clark Gregg (The Avengers et al) and Jillian Morgese (pretty well cut out of The Avengers), Whedon’s weekend Shakespeare workshop looks like a lot of fun.
But that’s also where the frustrations set in. Because this very much looks like a weekend Shakespeare workshop. Whedon’s adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing, Shakespeare’s greatest rom-com, is splendid and should be part of any award season talk for adapted screenplays, and the fast and loose directorial style plays well with the whole “filming in the director’s actual house” (which looks fucking awesome, by the way) gimmick. At times, some of Shakespeare’s best and best-known lines seem improvised, everyone is so free and easy clearly enjoying themselves. But…but then you can’t help but notice when someone isn’t quite up to the language. And it reminds you that Whedon’s biggest weakness is casting.
On the whole, the ensemble works great, but Denisof sticks out like a sore thumb. He isn’t as snappy with the language as everyone else and he has zero chemistry with Acker, which is a real problem since they play the bickering would-be couple at the center of affairs, Beatrice and Benedick. What should be witty repartee comes off more as verbal bullying as Acker—who isn’t a stellar Beatrice but is definitely better than her Benedick—lands her zingers and barbs and Denisof gapes like a guppy before sputtering a response. The timing is never good between them; at best they achieve a bland kind of efficiency. Acker also goes a little overboard with the theatricality when events take a darker turn and things get a bit Macbeth in tone, which is a jarring note overall, but it passes quickly.
Still, Acker is good enough in scenes with non-Denisof persons to pass muster. The scene in which Don Pedro (Diamond) tentatively offers himself as a marriage possibility is light and sweet and perfect in tone, and later, you kind of wish she’d go for the older, less sexy Pedro just because he’s clearly much more intelligent than Benedick. It’s obvious this was a case of Whedon calling round to his friends to hang out and make a movie, but the Beatrice/Benedick problem makes you wish he’d used a slightly more traditional casting approach.
On the technical side, though, there are few complaints to be made. The movie has a DIY craftiness to it, which works well with the overall loosey-goosey tone, and it also serves as a good reminder that Shakespeare doesn’t have to be fussy. Some have complained about the “home video” look of the movie, but the black and white cinematography (lensed by Jay Hunter, a Dollhouse veteran) is rich and beautiful, making the most of the limited landscape provided by Whedon’s (awesome) house.
If it looks like a home video it’s because the framing makes the most of angles and close-ups, moving the viewer through the party like another guest. We peer around corners, look over shoulders, and eyeball faces as characters plot, plan and flirt. It’s intimate yet inviting, not amateurish. And the editing, done by Whedon and Dan Kaminsky (Whedon’s assistant on The Avengers) is spry, so take your friends who complain about Shakespeare being long and/or boring, for this is neither.
Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing is fun and entertaining and it makes Shakespeare accessible and contemporary, which is no mean feat, but the lack of standout performances keeps it from being really meaningful. It’s the cinematic equivalent of a good piece of angel food cake. It might be mostly just sugar and air, but it tastes nice going down.