Those Friends Thou Hast . . .
by Tina Hassannia

Much Ado About Nothing
Dir. Joss Whedon, U.S., Roadside Attractions

The most significant quality of Joss Whedon’s modern adaptation of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing is not its black-and-white palette, small self-financed budget, or the fact that the crew shot it in just under a fortnight at his house, but that this is the first film Whedon has directed that he hasn’t also written. Considering that much of the talk about Whedon centers around his distinct writing style—playful genre mixing, neologisms, and dialogue that marries whimsy with sarcasm—it comes as little surprise that in choosing a script by another writer, he went after one who also had a fancy for witticisms and wordplay. Much Ado, written primarily in prose and set entirely in the residence of one of the characters, makes for a relatively low-maintenance contemporary adaptation. The milieu transfers easily to Whedon’s Californian upper-class chic setting, and its comedic, irreverent tone and roll-off-the-tongue zingers are accessible to contemporary audiences.

The spirited, strong-minded Beatrice (Amy Acker) must have been a main appeal of the play for Whedon, who has a predilection for writing strong, sharp-tongued female characters. One of her fiery monologues points out the double standard in fighting for family honor: as a woman, Beatrice is unable to defend her cousin Hero (Jillian Morgese) after she is accused by her groom, Claudio (Fran Kranz), of cheating on him. Scholars have long debated whether the play makes fun of its male characters’ anxiety about female infidelity or if it reifies gender stereotypes, though in his version Whedon seems to err on the side of satire, amplifying every element that can be interpreted as remotely parodic, including a tongue-in-cheek performance of the play’s song “Sigh No More,” which encourages women to accept their partners’ proclivity for infidelity. The majority of the male characters are quick to believe the accusation (and later feel slightly sheepish about their gullibility, as Hero’s alleged infidelity was part of a larger plot to break up the couple), and the film luxuriates in their embarrassment and in Beatrice’s sardonic last word on the debacle. Acker’s delivery is highly reminiscent of all those Whedon characters who get the chance to tell someone off with great sagacity.

Upon returning to Messina from war, Don Pedro (Reed Diamond), Benedick (Alexis Denisof) and Claudio are welcomed to stay at the residence of Leonato (Clark Gregg), Messina’s governor, whose daughter, Hero, catches the eye of the young Claudio. Hero’s cousin Beatrice, also in the house, takes her best shots making fun of the chauvinistic Benedick, and many of the play’s droll moments involve battles of wit between the two. They may drive each other crazy, but Beatrice and Benedick do have one thing in common at the outset of the play: they don’t value love or marriage. Beatrice doesn’t believe any man is worthy of her, while Benedick scorns the idea of commitment. While the play hints at their erotic tension, the film makes it explicit by opening with a wordless scene showing that they’re casual sexual partners. Whedon’s addition modernizes their dynamic while also adding a new layer: these modern-day “players” don’t want to acknowledge what’s secretly going on between them, giving them more reason to publicly espouse their reasons for remaining unattached. After Don Pedro helps Claudio win the affections of Hero and secure her father’s permission for her hand, the crew, trying to find something to do while awaiting the celebrations, secretly play matchmaker to Benedick and Beatrice; each is led to believe that the other is holding back real affection out of pride, thus forcing the two would-be lovers to question their own true feelings for each other.

Many Whedon characters are written with a modicum of self-deprecation. Sometimes it’s employed deliberately with sarcasm when a character is about to kick ass (as in Buffy); at other times self-mocking is used to heighten viewer empathy for a superhuman character revealing vulnerability. Whedon has a knack for writing affable, witty people with universally relatable insecurities, and Beatrice and Benedick fit right in. Unsurprisingly, the scenes in which the two independently realize they love each other are some of the film’s best moments. The flustered Benedick, who’s just overheard that Beatrice secretly loves him, is uncertain how to act in her presence. Having been established as a pompous chauvinist, Benedick becomes uncharacteristically nervous, exaggerating his strength-training exercises in order to show off his body in front of a baffled and disgusted Beatrice.

At times, Whedon oversimplifies some characters. Like many of his antagonists, Much Ado’s villain, Don John (Sean Maher), the bastard son who tries to break up Claudio and Hero, is cunning and explicates in great detail his justifications for being evil. But the film treats Don John’s motivations so hastily it forgets the pitiable nature of his situation, namely his being unable to fit into society due to his illegitimacy and thus choosing to live up to his degenerate status. Whedon tries to further sexualize Don John’s dialogue, as in a scene with his friend Conrad (whose gender Whedon changes, and is now Don John’s lover, played by Riki Lindhome), but their steamy encounter distracts from the complexity of the character’s self-loathing. In Whedon’s adaptation, the brooding Don John never quite gets the chance to wallow, instead coming off as a conventional sexually dominant villain.

The film’s origins are a series of casual Shakespeare readings Whedon hosted for his actor friends at his house over a number of years. The decision to adapt Much Ado was greatly influenced by Whedon’s discovery during those recreational rehearsals of Acker and Denisof’s gifted incarnations of Beatrice and Benedick. With his friends already familiar with the lines and willing to participate for very little money upfront, Whedon jumped at the opportunity. Thus, though the film might give the impression that Whedon is expanding his repertoire, he’s actually operating in a comfortable and familiar environment. There’s an overly calculated feeling to much of the film. Even though Whedon has a talent for subverting genre conventions (especially when working on television), more and more frequently he does so purely for commercial purposes instead of challenging us. Whedon increasingly operates in a predictable, circumscribed register. There’s an undeniable cleverness to Much Ado About Nothing, but like a lot of his recent work, there’s not much left to chew on once it’s reached its logical conclusion.