All words: Alan Pyke
We love movies partly because they let us indulge in big emotions, or even medium-sized ones, in ways real life isn’t designed to provide. The joy or ill-fated nobility or sorrow that passes too quickly to be appreciated in actual experience can be dilated in time and dialed up in intensity by good actors and sharp editors, by slow-motion soft-focus shots of laughing faces. It’s not that we want slices of cake instead of slices of life, as in the Hitchcock quip. We want lifecake, either by the slice or in great goopy piles, so long as it’s distended enough to let us tap into authentic feelings for just a little longer than their fleeting half-lives.
If that seems like a lot of royal-we pomposity for a review of a shoestring-budgeted adaptation of a 415-year-old play, well screw you too buddy. I’m getting to that.
Joss Whedon’s adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing sort of sells itself. Fans of either of those two things would only need to hear a brief description of the other to realize it’s a perfect marriage of stylist and story. Even the most ostentatious contrarian would have a hard time arguing that somehow the wit and depth of Shakespeare’s best comedy might cancel the wit and depth that have defined Whedon’s career from Buffy to Firefly to Cabin in the Woods. Fans of the play got their definition of romantic banter from Beatrice and Benedick, much as Whedonites got theirs from any number of pairings and almost-pairings he’s created over the years. If black-and-white Shakespeare adaptations shot in the director’s personal home as a way to blow off steam while he worked on The Avengers could be marketed the way they sell pay-per-view boxing, the trailer would just be “WHEDON” and “MUCH ADO” in huge stone letters, crunching noisily onto the screen next to each other, and a knowing voiceover: “Awwwww, yeeeeah. June 21st, son.”
What makes Whedon’s Much Ado special, though, is what he puts around the crackling exchanges and madcap leaps of the play. Yes, the acting is very strong. Yes, it’s a hell of a lot of fun to watch Nathan Fillion (Firefly) update Shakespeare’s idiot constable to the CSI era of grasping cop cool, and yes, it’s hard not to fall in hopeless love with Amy Acker (Cabin in the Woods) as Beatrice. Yes, his adaptation is lean and breezily accessible, while entirely loyal to Shakespeare’s language. (The only two songs with any words on the soundtrack even lift their lyrics directly from songs in the play, combining icy piano-bar jazz with oblong, antiquated, theatrical verse in ways reminiscent of the party scene in Rian Johnson’s Brick.) It’s not easy to do sub-two-hour Shakespeare, and Whedon’s cut and keep decisions manage it adroitly.
But if it were all presented in the brisk, utilitarian visual style Whedon often employs – where form follows function, and function equals joke, so let cinematography equal a means to comic ends and little else – Much Ado About Nothing wouldn’t be half the feat that it is.
Instead, Whedon and cinematographer Jay Hunter fill the seams with proper spectacle. The parties and plots and soliloquys are surrounded by gauzy, unobtrusively clever filmmaking. The camera lingers on odd objects, racks focus lazily between one and another visual feature as characters move between scenes. There’s a sort of gradual accumulation of imagery that supports and reinforces the modern-day casually-wealthy setting. Whedon and Hunter make excellent use of light and angle. The distinctive shot from the poster, of Claudio (Cabin in the Woods and Dollhouse star Fran Kranz) wearing a snorkel and holding a martini, up to his cheeks in a swimming pool the black-and-white camera renders the color of burnished steel, is the most fun shot in the movie. But the most lyrical, emotionally resonant ones come near the end, after your cheeks hurt from laughing, as the ensemble marks a dual wedding with white-guy dancing and slow-mo chuckles and lingering smiles and tequila shots. What makes Much Ado joyous, at least as much as the zippy rhythm and the pitch-perfect throwaway gags, is how well it reproduces the emotional indulgences of the play using the language of film.