As modernised adaptations of Shakespeare go, Joss Whedon’s spirited stab at updating Much Ado About Nothing is decent. The play is brought to life in the secluded excesses of a Santa Monica villa (shot in Whedon’s own house), and fans will spot many of his regulars peppered amongst the cast, though no overly famous faces.
Leonato’s (Clark Gregg) residence swells with manufactured romance and more sinister deception as his daughter Hero (Jillian Morgese) falls in love with Claudio (Fran Kranz), only to be manipulated into mistrust by the scheming Don John (Sean Maher). Meanwhile, Hero’s cousin Beatrice (Amy Acker) verbally spars with Benedick (played with aplomb by Alexis Denisof), protesting indifference to each other and vitriol to love in all its forms. Typically, they convince no-one.
Much Ado’s famous “skirmishes of wit” are delivered unevenly, unmistakably informed by SNL-style repartee. In particular, Amy Acker’s performance as Beatrice owes a lot to Kristen Wiig in Bridesmaids, though sadly never reaches such comic heights. Whedon’s message is clear – Shakespeare isn’t any different from modern rom-coms, guys! It’s an important point but I can’t help but feel Whedon has made it at the expense of some of the play’s charm – he forgets that much standard rom-com fare these days is pretty diabolical by all standards, neither romantic nor funny. At times, setting the action so conspicuously in this vein seems reductive: so determined is Whedon to cast the play as the forefather of modern romantic comedy, he is insensitive to the genre’s traps, occasionally descending into insipid fluff.
Moreover, the film’s slick visuals – all crafty angles and well-lit interiors, shot in elegant monochrome – are about its only claim to anything remotely ‘cinematic’. Otherwise, the adaptation still keeps the feel of a theatrical production, insular and self-contained, its world shrunk to the boundaries of the scenic villa. At times, you wonder if anything new is actually achieved by filming this.
That said, the dialogue flickers with verve, even if it’s not totally sustained, and there are genuinely hilarious moments, especially when the soaring wit is bathetically paired with a good dose of slapstick. Benedick in particular is physically transformed by love, his smooth advocacy of bachelorhood undermined by an improbable series of lunges, somersaults and cross-country bounding that would make Cary Grant cringe, and the rest of us erupt with laughter.
This is an enjoyable offering, at times tender and funny. Yet it is not without dull stretches where wit is smothered in Californian glamour, and lines delivered like a series of wrong notes.