Early Buzz: Joss Whedon’s ‘Much Ado About Nothing’

Joss Whedon‘s already two for two this year, earning critical raves for The Cabin in the Woods (which he co-wrote with Drew Goddard) and then knocking it out of the park on every level with The Avengers. But he’s not finished: His third film of the year, the black-and-white William Shakespeare adaptation Much Ado About Nothing, just premiered at TIFF. And based on the reviews so far it sounds like the perfect capper to Whedon’s already stunning year.

Shot in just 12 days while Whedon was finishing up The Avengers, this version retains the Bard’s dialogue but moves the action to contemporary LA. (Specifically, Whedon’s own house.) Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof star as Beatrice and Benedick, acquaintances whose prickly banter signals an obvious compatibility. Other Whedon favorites fill out the rest of the cast: Fran Kranz, Nathan Fillion, Sean Maher, and Clark Gregg. Read more of the early buzz after the jump.

Note that some of the reviews below contain spoilers. Odds are you already know where the plot is going anyway — not only is Much Ado based on a 400-year-old play, its twists aren’t hard to guess even if you skipped the Shakespeare lesson in high school — but don’t say we didn’t warn you.

Reactions out of TIFF were nearly all positive, such that this C+ review from Indiewire represents about the harshest criticism we’ve seen so far.

While the material is fairly consistent with the source, the contemporary setting means that all these characters deliver their Elizabethan dialogue in suits and other modern day ware, while carrying cell phones, driving cars and otherwise going out their lives under the signs of modernity. Shakespeare’s plays have been explored through this process so often that the approach is essentially a subgenre unto itself, but in “Much Ado About Nothing,” the technique feels less like calculation than laziness.

The actors, many of whom repeatedly surface in Whedon’s oeuvre, leer and smirk at each other while delivering their lines as though the entire production constituted an inside joke. While the black-and-white cinematography underlines the disconnect between setting and plot, the movie is otherwise unremarkably staged through production values that make Whedon’s web series “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-a-Long Blog” look like a blockbuster.

The other reviews ranged from positive to positively glowing. Several critics noted that Whedon fans would be extra inclined to love the film, though non-Whedonites will find plenty to enjoy as well. Here’s The Playlist:

The result is an utter joy, Whedon’s most emotionally resonant and fully realized feature film to date. And I say that as one who is not a devoted member of the Whedon army. It’s not that I haven’t enjoyed much of his work – I have, often. But I’ve not seen every episode of “Buffy” and “Firefly,” I never meandered into “Dollhouse,” and I thought “Dr. Horrible” was worth one viewing, but no more. Happily, outside of actor recognition, Whedon fanaticism is not a requirement to enjoy “Much Ado.”

While the cast as a whole was warmly received, the highest praises were saved for Acker, as in this review from The AV Club:

Some, like Amy Acker—as the sharp-tongued anti-romantic Beatrice—find exactly the right balance between 21st century casualness and poetic classicism. (Seriously, why isn’t Acker a huge star yet?)

And this one from HitFix:

The cast takes great delight in the text, and Whedon’s obvious love for the cast is reflected in the way he allows them room to play. [...] I’ve been a fan of Whedon’s work since “Buffy,” and it’s great seeing Denisof and Acker anchor a cast like this and stretch in a way we haven’t seen before. They both shine in their roles, and it makes me wonder why Whedon has to be the one giving them such good parts. Shouldn’t everyone else have caught on by this point?

No one familiar with Whedon’s work will be surprised to find that he and his stars have a lot of fun with the premise. THR thinks that playfulness is true to the spirit of the source material:

But more than most adaptations, this is a film true to Shakespeare’s practice of employing all means at hand to keep the crowd entertained — even if it means getting Clark Gregg (as Leonato), that impeccably professional agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., to get drunk and shake his ass.

At the same time, Variety assures us that the movie never gets too tongue-in-cheek:

[T]here’s also an impish streak at play here, an impulse to tweak not just the characters’ pretensions but also the production’s modern trappings. And so Benedick delivers a soliloquy in a room full of stuffed animals and Barbie dolls; a masquerade ball comes with a swimming pool and a marshmallow-toasting station; and the tension of Claudio and Hero’s stalled nuptials is briefly dispelled when Don John helps himself to a designer cupcake. Much comic exaggeration is made of the stage directions when Benedick, trying to eavesdrop, dives behind a shrubbery far too flimsy to conceal a man in broad daylight.

These riffs aside, the actors somehow maintain a deadpan obliviousness that keeps the conception from tilting into silliness and, crucially, dovetails with their crisp, focused delivery of the text.

Unsurprisingly, considering its tiny budget and quick production schedule, Much Ado has a homemade, lo-fi feel to it. Film.com means that as a compliment:

Offered up as karmic balance for his billion-dollar superhero enterprise “The Avengers” from this summer, this tiny friends-and-family production has the vibe of a project done on weekends and after school. That’s no knock. It is vibrant and bubbly and just clever enough to engage people who wouldn’t normally watch a black-and-white micro-budget Shakespeare adaptation without any big movie stars.

NPR Monkey See took it one step further and wondered if Much Ado‘s low-budget, low-risk model could spark a move toward smaller movies:

As I watched Much Ado About Nothing, I had the distinct thought, “I wonder whether this is the future.” Not the future, of course — I don’t believe we’re anywhere close to the end of the blockbuster, nor do I believe we’re necessarily entering a new age of Shakespeare — but a big piece of the future. Big films have gotten so big, expensive films so expensive, that all of the risk has to be drained out of them, which often leaves behind a dried-out version of whatever was originally intended.

When you forgo so much of what the money buys, you don’t have to hedge every single bet to make the money back. [...] If nobody goes to see it, it’s not a disaster, and nobody has to get fired, and edict has to go forth that nothing anything like it must ever be done again.

Finally, a few quick Twitter reactions:

Much Ado About Nothing has yet to announce a theatrical release.

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