I like renditions of William Shakespeare’s plays best when elaborate costumes and sets take a break and the Bard’s words simply get to breathe. Now, it’s true the rather fabulous Southern California house director Joss Whedon uses for his modern-dress, black-and-white Much Ado About Nothing isn’t a humble abode (it’s the house he lives in with wife and fellow producer Kai Cole – an architect that designed it – and their family), but this sleek and sure-footed adaptation is no fuss, no mess and absolutely no bother.
Whedon shot the feature over 12 days between principal photography and post-production on his mega-hit The Avengers. The “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Angel” creator brought together some familiar faces – Amy Acker is Beatrice to Alexis Denisof’s Benedick – and some new ones to take what is essentially a screwball comedy (with some admittedly darker elements) and give it an appropriately, though nicely balanced, Hollywood garnish. It took the Toronto Film Festival by storm and has now arrived at the Belcourt Theatre in Nashville.
The witty barbs that fly between Beatrice and Benedick turn from disdain to declarations of love thanks to a conspiracy between Don Pedro (Reed Diamond), Count Claudio (Fran Kranz), Hero (Jillian Morgese), Leonato (Clark Gregg) and others that bring them together. The nefarious Don John (Sean Maher) has a plot of his own, though, to undo the altar-bound love Claudio and Hero have for each other; will that mountain of malapropism known as Dogberry (Nathan Fillion) be able to discover and thwart the evil-doing in time?
No prizes for guessing the solution if you didn’t study this play in school or see it at some point. Shakespeare doesn’t try to stump us; he just reminds (or reveals to) us what lies in the mirror he holds up to our ever-conflicted natures. And just allowing his words to breathe without smothering them in various trappings is the key to bringing them alive again and again.
Doing excellent jobs of that are Acker, Denisof, Gregg, Diamond, Fillion and Tom Lenk as Dogberry’s Barney Fife sidekick Verges; Kranz and Maher acquit themselves well too. Morgese is a relative newcomer whose Hero is compelling but light on the lines, and others struggle a little to appear comfortable with the play’s precise language. Still, no one has a major gaffe, and the majority of the text is in very good hands with Whedon’s primary players.
Whedon also provides a rather wide-ranging musical score that among other measures makes the “Hey Nonny, Nonny” number as pleasing as ever. Jay Hunter’s cinematography captures the wonderful contrasts black-and-white can provide; Whedon and co-editor Daniel S. Kaminsky make this familiar tale zip along its roughly one-and-three-quarter hours.
“Then sigh not so/But let them go/And be you blithe and bonny” the master storyteller says to us in that aforementioned song. This Much Ado About Nothing ultimately succeeds because it has that joyful buoyancy that lifts us from tears to laughter.
Much Ado About Nothing (www.muchadomovie.com) is now playing at the Belcourt Theatre (2102 Belcourt Ave.) in Nashville; click here for more info, times and tickets. Rated PG-13 for some sexuality and brief drug use, 107 min. Co-produced, directed and written by Joss Whedon, based on the play by William Shakespeare. Starring Amy Acker, Alexis Denisof, Reed Diamond, Clark Gregg, Fran Kranz, Jillian Morgese, Sean Maher, Nathan Fillion and Tom Lenk.
*Photos by Elsa Guillet-Chapuis courtesy Roadside Attractions.