It may come as a shock to everyone, but I don’t think we should force kids to read Shakespeare. I don’t think we should make anyone read Shakespeare. Mainly because Shakespeare didn’t write things that were meant to be read, he wrote things that were meant to be performed. I think everyone should have to study Shakespeare, and I think everyone should watch one of his plays be performed. Joss Whedon succeeds in putting together a Much Ado About Nothing that’s not just funny, but also easily accessible, and should be watched by all.
Sorry, kids, I did my best for you there.
Movie versions of Shakespeare plays are difficult. Do you go for the classic Elizabethan style? Do you update it and force some of the language have to be updated? Do you set it in a mushroom kingdom and do a parody of Super Mario Brothers? (Movie idea: The Merry Wives of the Mario Brothers.) Setting it modern day, keeping most of the language, and putting it all in black and white really translated well. Granted, if you’re going to set something in modern day, this is the play to do it. (That and Macbeth. Let’s face it, witches and beheadings never really go out of style.)
Much Ado About Nothing is the natural fit for Joss Whedon’s style. Had Joss Whedon been born back in Shakespeare times, he’d probably be a small, unsuccessful landowner who wrote something similar to Much Ado About Nothing, then was later re-written by William Shakespeare. The rapid jokes, the sniping, the battle of the sexes... all part of Joss Whedon’s work. It’s what makes him Joss Whedon.
I’ve always liked Much Ado About Nothing. To me it really plays like a parody of William Shakespeare’s works. The stakes are pretty low. (Will Beatrice and Benedick get married? Will Hero and Claudio work through their problems?) There’s some plotting, but all the plotting is to get people to fall in love. The bad guy isn’t really a bad guy as he is a devious, scheming guy with no real motivation other than, “Hey... I’m going to mess with all these people in a horrible, horrible way.” And the whole thing takes place post-war, so while it’s briefly mentioned, it’s not really hanging over the proceedings. No, this is a bright, breezy affair. This is crowd pleasin’, Rom-Com Shakespeare. Basically, it’s what Hamlet would have been if it was intentionally funny.
Side note: Hamlet is probably other good fit for Joss Whedon, because there’s a ghost and everyone dies. In fact, two of the funniest characters are killed off screen. A young Joss probably watched that and said, “I’m going to make everyone fall in love with a guest star, put her in the credits, then kill her and never show her ever, ever again. (You were Willow’s real love, Tara.)
Oh, you probably want to know about the plot. Don Pedro, Claudio, Benedick and his ne’er do well (I can say that... Shakespeare) bastard brother Don John, end up at Leonato’s house to spend the month. In that time, Claudio falls in love with Hero and decide to get married, and Don Pedro decides to spend the week scheming to get Benedick and Beatrice together. Don John gets his men together to besmirch Hero’s name and cause general mayhem.
If it’s not obvious by now (and the preview I wrote a few weeks ago) I loved this movie. Yes, I was a bit pre-disposed to absolutely love it... It’s one of my favorite modern writer/directors taking on one of my favorite old-timey writer/directors, and I absolutely love all the actors involved in making this. So at this point it was really Joss Whedon and the actor’s game to lose. And they didn’t. I loved it. I loved every last second of watching this movie.
The actors seemed at home performing this play. Amy Acker did a great job as Beatrice, and had great will they or won’t they chemistry with Alexis Denisof as her Benedick. (Like a Sam and Diane. Or Ross and Rachel. Or Jim and Pam. Or... you know, that’s how far forward my pop culture goes. If you don’t understand those, kids as your parents.) Fran Kranz (Who played Claudio and we can pretend that we’re not going to call him “Topher”) did a great job as an insecure young soldier. I loved Clark “Agent Coulson” Gregg as Leonato... dude melted into the role. Really, I had to throw in a joke about Agent Coulson, but about two minutes after he opened his mouth, I felt bad for saying “Agent Coulson lives!” when he walked on the screen, because he inhabited the role.
The big standout for me was that of Nathan Fillion in the role of Dogberry. Even though this is a smaller part, it’s one of the more important parts in Shakespeare, period. Remember how earlier I mentioned that this plays out as a parody of a Shakespeare play? Dogberry is this play’s fool. Normally, Shakespeare liked to make his fools the smartest characters, Dogberry is a character that THINKs he’s the smartest guy in the room, and also the one who figures out Don John’s evil (ish) plot and saves the day, all completely on accident. This is the easiest character to screw up, but Fillion really managed to pull it off in a way that I didn’t think was possible.
Speaking of the actors and the directing, I love love love the fact that they didn’t go the whole “high British accent” route. We’ve discussed in the past that theater in Shakespeare’s day was considered low-class, so it was performed closer to an American accent. (Some say closer to a Chicago Accent, which explains why Antigonus exits, pursued by Da Bears in another play. Not all these jokes are winners, folks.) Particularly since we know that Alexis Denisof can do an English Accent (unlike some other mystical father figures...) as he did it for 6 years for Joss in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel.
Yes, I’ll be the first one to admit that I was looking forward to this, more than Man of Steel. (No one tell Superman, my first love...) So yes, unless they came out and butchered the text, I was more apt to love it. There are some not great moments. The whole “Claudio is easily fooled” part is still difficult to watch, no matter how great the actors. The dramatic scenes weren’t the strongest. And they really pushed the “love is great, sex is bad” theme by switching the gender of one of Don John’s hench... um.... persons... which makes for a rather interesting moment as Don John and her make out for a little bit. (It still works, don’t get me wrong, and it ties into the idea of love vs. sex, but it’s just a bit obvious at some moments.)
But I would urge everyone to go see it. If you want to see a version of a Shakespearean play that you will understand, laugh at, and is relatable today, I would highly recommend watching this movie. Hey, it manages to be funnier than Hangover 3.