Like any cool kid, Joss Whedon likes to throw parties. Only, at these parties, which take place at his Southern California home, his guests are brought together to read and perform Shakespeare plays. One day, he decided to film one of these events, and now Much Ado About Nothing is playing in select theaters.
Filmed in 12 days between shooting and post-production of 2012’s The Avengers, Whedon’s Much Ado is a modern adaptation of Shakespeare’s classic comedy starring Whedon’s friends – mostly actors who have worked on his previous TV projects such as Angel, Firefly, and Dollhouse. The play follows two sets of lovers: the first being Beatrice (Amy Acker) and Benedick (Alexis Denisof), who manage to heavily blur the line between love and hate, beginning as enemies tricked into thinking they’re in love. The second pair of lovers is Claudio (Fran Kranz) and Hero (Jillian Morgese), engaged to be married until the villain Don John (Sean Maher) intervenes by accusing Hero of being unfaithful. Full of humor, drama, love, and sex, Much Ado is one of Shakespeare’s most beloved plays and Whedon definitely does the Bard justice with this 108 minute feature.
The film feels like one big party, especially for a Whedon fan familiar with most of the faces on screen (insert obligatory Coulson lives hash tag here), and also because of the natural chemistry exhibited by the actors themselves, most of whom have worked with each other many times before. Perhaps it is the casual atmosphere, the simple yet classy black and white, or the fact that it was shot on a mumblecore-sized budget that causes this version of Much Ado to feel like an extremely modest and humble effort. It does not try to dazzle its audience with big name stars, special effects or a modern hip-hop soundtrack. It leaves little to distract from the play’s original text. And while the strongest part of most Whedon projects is usually the screenwriter’s famously witty dialogue, obviously absent from Much Ado, the screwball-esque banter in Shakespeare’s original text more than makes up for it.
Still, I am left asking why; Why would Joss Whedon, director and screenwriter of behemoth blockbusterThe Avengers be interested in taking time off to shoot a low budget Shakespeare adaptation? Among the things that undoubtedly attracted Whedon to Much Ado About Nothing are its feminist themes. Whedon is celebrated for creating strong and powerful female characters in his works such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly, and Serenity, and through the character of Beatrice, a “disdainful” woman who is not afraid to speak her mind and defy men, Whedon is able explore another strong woman. The jousting between Lady Beatrice and Senior Benedick is a war between genders as much as it is between two actual people. And Whedon also draws much attention to the Claudio and Hero subplot, in which Claudio refuses to marry Hero after accusing her of sleeping with another man in a scenario that resembles the modern concept of “slut shaming.”
I think Whedon saw Much Ado About Nothing as a break, a short vacation before he returned to the world of Hollywood superheroes. Much Ado was not work. It was fun. And that’s how we too should think of it. Whedon’s Much Ado is not a brilliant masterpiece that greatly elaborates on Shakespeare’s original text, nor is it trying to be. It is simply a faithful adaptation and a cool, modern retelling of a classic tale. And it just might be the funniest, and sexiest retelling of that story you will ever see. It’s a party. And it is one you won’t want to miss.