Some might call Joss Whedon’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s comedy, filmed in just 12 days at his own house using a smattering of actors from his previous work, “rushed” or “American” or “irreverent.” I’d call it “light” and “fun” and “charming.” Definitely “enjoyable.”
There may not be a lot of weight to Whedon’s adaptation, but there doesn’t have to be. Shakespeare’s comedies were just that, comedic. Silly more often than not. They ended in weddings and the tragedies ended in deaths (no, I didn’t spoiler alert you, there’s a statute of limitations on spoilers and its not 400 years). Yes there’s drama and sometimes you may think the lovers won’t work it out, but of course they do.
Although Much Ado is not my favorite of Shakespeare’s comedies (see As You Like It) I really enjoyed this adaptation. It’s dressed down and casual in every sense. And after your ear becomes accustomed to it, it’s easy to forget that the language is Shakespearean. That the film is in black and white helps; the colors would be distracting. Shakespeare is regularly set outside its Elizabethan roots, and modern-day SoCal is no better or worse than any other setting. While the majority of actors are not Shakespeare veterans, they all have the necessary chemistry and good direction working for them. And they embrace the airy tone of the film so that the language seems natural rolling off their tongues.
While some of Shakespeare’s witty dialogue is lost on a modern audience, Whedon compensates by ramping up the physical comedy and visual gags. Amy Acker (Beatrice) and Nathan Fillion (Constable Dogberry) are particularly good at this. In one memorable seen Acker, eavesdropping on a conversation, falls, crawls, and bumps her head in the space of a minute, but it’s never cheap or cheesy. Acker shines in general in the ensemble film, showing the greatest command of the language and of her character. She dominates every scene she is in, and weaker characters, like newcomer Jillian Morgese’s Hero, suffer when they share the screen with Beatrice. Although Clark Gregg, as Beatrice’s uncle Leonato, is memorable in his own way, delivering some of the funniest and most dramatic moments of the film.
Shakespeare is really hard to do onscreen, since by definition his work belongs on stage, but Whedon does a remarkable job making his version of Much Ado accessible to an average moviegoer, as well as enjoyable to a Shakespeare aficionado. You probably won’t cry but you’ll definitely laugh.