Adapting Shakespeare always comes with its own unique share of challenges, whether the medium be stage or screen. Perhaps the greatest challenge of all is the struggle that accompanies enticing audiences into the lengthy iambic pentameter of Elizabethan drama, particularly audiences so frequently and lamentably marinated in distaste for Shakespeare. Few would nominate science fiction and action luminary Joss Whedon as the ideal director for the job, yet Whedon has offered up a delightfully breezy, lighthearted retelling of one of Shakespeare’s finest comedies, Much Ado About Nothing.
Film noir meets the halcyon days of romantic comedy in this boozy, dreamy adaptation of Shakespeare’s delightfully witty tale of honor, shame, and the journey from antagonism to love, this time envisioned as a giddy weekend of cocktail parties and subterfuge at Whedon’s own sprawling southern California estate. Filmed in a meager twelve days as a pet project by Whedon and the usual suspects that populate his films and television programs, the narrative chronicles the ups and downs of two couples: the blushingly shy and yet difficulty-ridden love of Hero and Claudio, and the orchestrated courtship of prideful and caustic adversaries in wit Benedick and Beatrice. As Hero and Claudio plot to bring Benedick and Beatrice together, a vile plot against Hero is perpetrated by visiting royalty, and the narrative unfolds in a characteristically Shakespearean progression of secrets, faked deaths, and malapropisms.
Alexis Denisof is a revelation as the ever-ostentatious Benedick— not only does he preen, bray, and posture in all the right ways, but he imbues the role with a delightful sense of physical comedy, particularly evident in his gaudy approach to exercise and his spry camouflage in the lavish gardens. As Beatrice, Amy Acker is splendidly spirited and marvelously vulnerable, a courageous combination of irreverence and emotiveness with which few actresses choose to imbue the character. Though the supporting cast shines, the film truly belongs to Denisof and Acker, who effortlessly trade barbs of rapier wit and share nigh-upon combustive comedic and sexual chemistry.
However, the film doesn’t belong entirely to the actors. Whedon must be commended for overcoming the common hurdle of modern-day Shakespearean retellings: importing sixteenth-century culture into a modern tableau. Blending a dreamy SoCal weekend with uptight Elizabethan social mores is no simple task, but Whedon handles it with remarkable aplomb by crafting a world in which scantily clad trapeze swingers can easily mesh hand in hand with talks of duels and dowries. This society in which characters imbibe like alcoholics and yet disown their daughters for perceived promiscuity is a strange society indeed, yet Whedon somehow makes it believable.
Much Ado has all the intimacy of a student film produced by close-knit friends, yet it also bears the loving touches of an evocative film noir, fashioned in muted black and white and peppered with gracefully inventive camerawork showcasing Whedon’s Spanish revival estate. The film is a whirlwind weekend of booze and lust, twinkling lights and smooth jazz, laugher and shining wit, all of it airy and slapstick and giddily cosmopolitan.
At the end of the day, however, the most enchanting aspect of Much Ado is its evocation of the golden age of romantic comedies. Much Ado is spirited and magical and infectiously warm in the way that all the best romantic comedies are, and it recalls an age in film that’s long gone by. For Whedon to step out of his action-packed comfort zone, evoke the best of a bygone era, and do it all in Elizabethan language? Now that’s a mean feat.