That I don’t trust Joss Whedon as a director is of course not at all the point. His nerd cred, for lack of a less annoying term, firmly encamps him among the people in show business that we can most comfortably trust to handle our beloved canons. Those he has created (Buffy, Firefly, etc.) and those we gingerly hand over to his tender care (X-Men, The Avengers).
But Shakespeare was a tall order. And Much Ado even taller. Kenneth Branagh’s acclaimed 1993 adaptation stands as the singular monolith in the play’s filmic history, overshadowing scant few other film adaptations that I won’t even mention because, c’mon, it’s not like you saw them. Could Whedon take on such a herculean task armed only with the hubris of a storied career under his belt but little evidence he could wrangle Will as gracefully as the classically trained Branagh?
Um, actually, yah. He can. He did. He does. And this Shakespeare snob, her red pen and tiny notebook at the ready lest any criticisms should present themselves to her, found herself laying her critical tools aside to really enjoy a funny and heartwarming and above all faithful film.
I don’t mean faithful as in adheres to what the play is about. I mean faithful as in it represented for me what attending a Shakespeare play contemporaneously probably felt like: carefree, energetic, enticing, sexy, funny, and capable of making you realize that no, this isn’t a particularly realistic scenario nor particularly realistic character development, but who gives a damn.
So in lieu of a standard movie review, I want to offer a few reasons why I think Shakespeare would have enjoyed watching Whedon’s adaptation of Much Ado.
1) It’s a movie that still treats a play like a play. It’s easier to suspend the disbelief of the artificiality of a play’s staging. Sometimes this even works to its advantage; dramatic, unrealistic, jarring stage settings that don’t aid the audience’s holistic conceptualization of the play as real so much as in the conceptualization of it as art. We are less inclined to willingly travel that road on film, unless we are aware from the get-go that what we are watching is a fiction, an alternate reality, a fantasy. Whedon’s Much Ado setting isn’t fantastical, but it is highly unrealistic, existing almost exclusively in one house/one yard. Most filmmakers would scramble to invent new settings into which scenes can be interjected, but Whedon doesn’t let us leave that damn house and therefore imposes an off-stage where there is none. Even Branagh’s adaptation offered an expansive country estate where characters could feasibly avoid each other if need be. But Whedon’s fantastic moment wherein Benedick is straining oafishly and comically outside the living room windows to try to hear what Don Pedro and Claudio have to say about his lovely Beatrice is so outrageously unrealistic that the comedy comes not from the event itself but from the very improbability of it happening. Whedon had an entire universe of imagination in which to block that scene, and yet he chose to give it the madcap near-miss tomfoolery we expect from a bawdy staging at the Globe.
2) Nathan Fillion as Dogberry would have delighted Shakes to no end. Despite what you may think, Shakespeare’s comic characters are among his most difficult to play. Oh boo hoo Hamlet, dad died and your mom’s shacking up with your uncle so just act sad for like three hours, BFD. Existential dread and a gnawing inner turmoil have nothing on the fine line one must walk between overwrought doofus and quietly comedic dingleberry (and yes, I am differentiating very precisely between a “doofus” and a “dingleberry.”) Nathan Fillion’s Dogberry the constable was dense, not stupid. Confused, not idiotic. The slapstick was graceful and well placed, and the seriousness Fillion can exude as a wisecracking protagonist was absolutely perfectly adapted to Dogberry’s endearing simplicity. The downplayed lyrical brilliance of the interrogation scene made me want to implode with joy.
3) Everybody was pretty much wasted the entire time. Don Pedro is hosting guests, and events turn quickly into wedding celebrations. Nary a scene took place in which at least two people weren’t downing glass after glass of red wine, speaking with limited inhibitions and walking with limited balance. Let me top you off, the women would eye to the men and the men to the women as they filled each other’s glasses throughout the movie. And let’s see what happens. (What happens, it turns out, is a lot of sexy flirting that’s so contagious it almost feels like the movie is hitting on you). Because in truth, the only world in which the absolute absurdity of Much Ado About Nothing could realistically take place is one in which every single character is drunk.
4) Shakespeare would have been in awe of modern technology. I mean let’s get real here; the one major reason Shakespeare would have been delighted to watch Whedon’s adaptation is because GIANT MOVING PICTURES! WHO ARE THESE ENORMOUS PEOPLE UP ON THIS STAGE AND WHY ARE THEY SO FLAT?! WHAT WITCHCRAFT IS THIS?! WHO IS KING OF THIS REALM?! AND FROM WHENCE MAY I OBTAIN A REFILL OF MY DIET COKE?!