TIFF12: Much Ado About Nothing (2012)

Verges (Tom Lenk) and Dogberry (Nathan Fillion) discuss the villainous cads they apprehended. The more you think about it, the more it actually isn’t that weird that Joss Whedon followed up the monumental success of The Avengers with a low-budget adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing and filled out the cast with his favourite collaborators. If there’s one thing Whedon loves more than comic book heroes, it is witty dialogue, and what play has wittier dialogue than Shakespeare’s brilliant trifle about the insanity of romance?

Shot in 12 days in Whedon’s own home in California, Much Ado About Nothing moves the play’s original setting of Renaissance Italy to the present day and swaps military attire for flashy suits, swords for guns, and incorporates a smart phone here and there. The contemporary aspects of the film aren’t very important or utilized all too often, as the modern setting is really a result of the film’s low budget and not some artistic inspiration on Whedon’s part.

Whedon doesn’t revel in the film’s style — he’s never been a major stylist anyway — and instead focuses mainly on the performances and the humour, as it should be. Amy Acker stars as Beatrice and Alexis Denisof as Benedick, the dueling would-be-lovers who savage each other with their words and wit. For those who skipped out on reading the play in high school or college, or who haven’t seen Sir Kenneth Branagh’s 1993 version, the plot is very simple.

Don Pedro (Reed Diamond) and his companions Benedick and Claudio (Fran Kranz) return successfully from a war and arrive at Leonato’s (Clark Gregg) home to rest and relax. There, Claudio becomes infatuated with Leonato’s daughter, Hero (Jillian Morgese) and seeks to marry her, while the friends of Benedick and Beatrice, Hero’s cousin, play at tricking them into falling in love with each other even though each hates the other.

The story is a trifle and merely a means of producing witty banter and exploring the absurdities and schizophrenic nature of romance. Most of the actors in Whedon’s film are new to Shakespeare, and Whedon does a good job at guiding them through it, bringing out the humour of the script and avoiding any stodgy theatrical pontification. They may not have the eloquence or diction of Branagh, but they produce far greater performances than their previous work suggested possible.

Acker and Denisof were the right choices to play Beatrice and Benedick. Acker plays Beatrice with a level of verbal maliciousness that I haven’t found in other portrayals of the character and really suits the tone Whedon has for the script. As for Denisof, the actor revels in how much of a blowhard Benedick is. The interactions between these two are, understandably, the highlights of the film.

Stealing the rest of the film is Nathan Fillion as Dogberry, the idiotic constable who accidentally uncovers a plot by Don John (an impressively sinister Sean Maher) to ruin the reputation of Hero. Dogberry is the play’s fool, and Fillion plays the character completely straight. This isn’t the psychotic performance of Michael Keaton in Branagh’s 1993 film. This is a deadpan performance of a man who, by the way he wears his aviators and struts about with his gun in his holster, thinks he’s the hero of some macho 1980s cop show. The result is the best rendition of Dogberry I’ve ever seen, and the funniest character in the film.

Aside from the text, Whedon works in various sight gags and pratfalls throughout, using the contemporary setting as an opportunity for hilarity absent from the script. For instance, the scene where Benedick overhears Claudio and Leonato talking about Beatrice’s love for him, Whedon has Denisof rolling on the grass and throwing himself about the backyard in order to stay hidden — the kind of slapstick that you’d find in a Peter Sellers movie.

Whedon’s film is loose and easygoing. He keeps the film intimate and doesn’t let the style overwhelm the text. This contemporary update may not be as visionary as Ralph Fiennes’ inspired Coriolanus, but it is probably the funniest Shakespeare on film since Branagh’s 1993 film of the same name.

Much Ado About Nothing (2012)

Directed by Joss Whedon; written for the screen by Joss Whedon, based on the play by William Shakespeare; starring Amy Acker, Alexis Denisof, Nathan Fillion, Clark Gregg, Reed Diamond, Fran Kranz, Jillian Morgese, and Sean Maher.

8 out of 10