Joss Whedon’s DIY Shakespeare

muchadoaboutnothingposterAfter 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 hella cool party broadaptation 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 abeatrice_benedicks 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.

fucking awesome pool

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.

OMG this kitchenIf 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.

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13 thoughts on “Joss Whedon’s DIY Shakespeare

  1. Sarah

    Gregg is “less sexy”? I’m I the only one who thinks he’s a fox?

    Disappointed that this movie isn’t playing in any theaters out in my burb. I’ll have to wait until it’s available on itunes or something because I can’t wait to check this out. I already have severe kitchen envy from that picture above. I’m guessing the rest of the film offers serious house porn

    1. No, he’s a total fox, and he’s great as Leonato. Have you read the play? Leonato is older, a widower, a patriarch/governor, and he’s like twice Beatrice’s age. Meanwhile, Benedick is basically a swashbuckler. Every movie version casts some sexy dude to play him (see also: Denzel Washington), but he’s supposed to be the more staid, less exciting of Beatrice’s options. It really backfires in this version because Denisoff can’t hold up Benedick at all, so Leonato ends up looking like the very much better choice, but it’s supposed to play as settling vs. marrying for love.

      Re: house porn. LOOK AT THE POOL PICTURE.

      1. Emily

        Uh, but it’s not Leonato who offers himself to Beatrice. It’s Don Pedro, the prince. (Reed Diamond)

      2. I realized that the other day and just haven’t gone back to correct it.

        The point still stands. Reed Diamond is solid and he’s way better than Benedick (in this version). Pretty much everyone > Benedick.

      3. Sarah

        Ahhh. That makes sense. Haven’t read the book since high school so I can’t remember the character details

      4. Yeah I’m an idiot and confused character details, too. I fixed the post–Reed Diamond is Don Pedro, the rich, older, kinda-suitor of Beatrice, and he is good in that role. Gregg’s Leonato is Hero’s father, and though he’s still a rich nobleman, he’s more of a father figure to the two women than Pedro, who hits on them. Anyway, Gregg is really good.

  2. Curious as to what other casting decisions you think have been weak? I’ve never associated a weak cast with a Whedon project.

    Can’t wait to see this. No idea when I will though since it has such a narrow release right now. Boo.

    1. Oh his casting isn’t terrible. It’s more like, if you have to pick a weakness, I’d say it’s casting because I tend to notice faults/problems there more than anything else. Like this movie–I get it’s just “casual filmmaking with friends”, but his casting actively hurt the finished product. It’s pretty great, but that central spark that would make it truly unforgettable is missing because he miscast the lead(s).

      But I also have two words for you: Eliza. Dushku.

  3. JN

    Joss Whedon apparently has a habit of holding Shakespeare readings at his house with friends, so as soon as I heard this movie was coming out I automatically assumed it would be a fancier version of that. I remember reading somewhere that they filmed everything during a weekend sleepover.

  4. Ono

    I’m surprised/sad to hear Alexis and Amy lack chemistry in this film, as I thought they had such lovely chemistry on Angel. Perhaps Alexis’ struggle with the language caused the problem, here.

    On an unrelated note, I remember reading that Tony Head (Giles on Buffy) was originally slated to play Leonato but had to back out at the last minute, and Gregg was parachuted in. I’m happy to hear Gregg handles the role well.

  5. I really want to watch this, but haven’t yet (there’s zero chance it’ll come out where I live.) But, related: have you seen the British National Theatre production with Catherine Tate and David Tennant? It’s set in the 80s (delightfully ridiculous costumes) and AMAZING, and the Beatrice/Benedick chemistry is really fantastic. You can torrent it (cough) or find it through Digital Theatre for a steepish price (I think 17 British pounds, as of a year ago?) if you want to go legit. It’s also really well-filmed, so it’s a very enjoyable viewing experience.

    Totally unrelated: I saw your post about Elementary (which I personally love more than Sherlock, but to each her own) on LaineyGossip, and I was thinking, re: network competing with cable: have you been watching Hannibal? I think Hannibal is the best answer to cable network has had since I can remember (to the point that I’m repeatedly surprised it’s on a network at all), so I’d be interested in your opinion of it.

    1. I’ll have to look up that version of Much Ado About Nothing. It is one of my favorites–how can you resist Beatrice? She’s amazing.

      Re: Hannibal. I’ve been catching up on it this summer and it’s really good but I have a hard time with it. That stuff sticks in my head, you know? I can watch a zombie chow down all day long because, really, what are the odds? But stuff like Hannibal–there are people like that out there. I can’t watch Criminal Minds for the same reason, and I’m currently struggling through Top of Lake, too (it’s not graphic but it’s so visceral it’s hard to watch). Anyway, I like Hannibal academically more than personally, but yeah, it’s a cable show that happens to be on a network. It’s top notch, and I hope NBC sticks with it just so we’ll have something like it on the network landscape.

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