Films rarely feel dangerous these days. Spectacle borne of a prohibitive budget was once surprising; extreme gore used to shock us. Now that every movie is either an Avatar or an Evil Dead, the most dangerous thing a big name director can do is shoot a passion project with his friends in his backyard over a period of two weeks. Much Ado About Nothing is a small film simply made, but it feels big. It feels like a natural progression, the only direction the revolution can take. It feels audacious.
But the movie's more than a subversion, a taking back of something we've lost. The most important thing about Much Ado About Nothing is that it's delightful. Shakespeare's play is a delight, a slapsticky riot of mixed messages and eavesdropping and disguises and thwarted love and forced love and mistaken identity. It's impossibly witty and completely fun, closing with the happiest of happy endings where the bad guy gets punished and the lovers wed and everybody dances. Joss Whedon gets that, and his Much Ado is full of belly laughs, moments of broad comedy bolstered by a very precise wit, and marvelous performances by actors who seem like they can't believe their luck in scoring this gig.
The movie was, indeed, made in Whedon's backyard and throughout his home, a beautiful structure with dozens of windows allowing for tremendous natural light that makes this black and white film radiate. He shot it in secret over twelve days while on a brief hiatus from The Avengers, and one can only imagine his joy in taking a break from the enormity of that challenge, the studio pressure and fan expectations. Actually, we don't have to imagine his joy - we can feel it in every scene, every shot.
The cast is overwhelmingly recognizable to any Whedonite. Amy Acker and an extra-goofy Alexis Denisof give their attention-grabbing due as our Beatrice and Benedick, parrying in that infinite battle of words, wit and spiky flirtation. Fran Kranz is unexpectedly earnest as Claudio; Nathan Fillion is every ounce as ridiculous as we could hope from Dogberry. Reed Diamond and Clark Gregg are both great as Don Pedro and Leonato, and Riki Lindhome does a bit of show stealing as our gender bent Conrade. Finally, Sean Maher is our villainous Don John, seething and smirking with great competence.
There's been heated scholastic debate spanning decades regarding Shakespeare's intent in writing Much Ado, in which women are commonly referred to as impure cuckolders and Balthasar's song "Sigh No More" encourages the fairer sex to embrace the infidelity of men with grace and a smile:
Sigh no more, ladies, sigh no more,
Men were deceivers ever;
One foot in sea, and one on shore,
To one thing constant never.
Then sigh not so,
But let them go,
And be you blith and bonny,
Converting all your sounds of woe
Into Hey nonny, nonny.
The debate is whether Shakespeare intended Much Ado to be a satire or an endorsement of this way of thinking. For what it's worth, I've always come down on the satire side, but in Joss Whedon's hands, there is no question. Gender politics are ever messy, and Much Ado is messy as hell, but at the end of Whedon's movie, it all feels very clear. Hero was terribly wronged, Claudio's a bit of a chump and Beatrice is a badass. With one pitch-perfect reaction shot, he even makes that notoriously uncomfortable "were she an Ethiope" line a homerun.
Before the movie, Whedon gave an intro and encouraged us to drink along, and good lord, is there a lot of sauce in this Shakespeare. The trials of our lovers are so maddeningly absurd that we can only accept that they're the result of days of binge drinking, wine and grappa and tequila and whiskey sloshing around in haphazard hands as the Bard's mouthfuls are lightly, easily uttered.
Oh, there are so many moments in this film that I wish I could gush over in precise detail, but of course that serves no purpose outside of gratifying my own instant nostalgia. See it, fall in love with it, then meet up with me so we can dish. Much Ado About Nothing is a triumph of charm and wit, going down so easily that we forget how astonishing it is that it actually exists.