Shakespeare wrote several “comedies,” and some of them are still funny today. (As You Like It and Twelfth Night come to mind.) But Much Ado About Nothing is not one of the funny ones. Unless it’s being filmed by Joss Whedon, in which case it’s fall-out-of-your-seat, holy-shit-can’t-breathe funny.
There are spoilers for a 400-year-old play in this article. Just FYI.
So yeah, Shakespeare’s “comedies” are all the plays that end with everybody getting married, as opposed to the tragedies which end with everybody dying. Or the histories, which end with the historically correct people dying, I guess. I’ve seen productions of some of the comedies which brought out the intrinsic humor in stuff like a dude thinking he can seduce ladies with yellow garters. But Much Ado is a tough one.
A lot of the humor in Much Ado comes from quips and banter, which rely on puns that were side-splitting in Renaissance England. And it’s a dark, weird play in which the main storyline is about slut-shaming and false gossip and a girl faking her death. (Because she asked a priest for advice, and that’s the only advice Shakespearean priests ever give: “Fake your own death.” Even if you’re just asking about a minor quandary at your job.)
In Much Ado About Nothing, Don Pedro (Reed Diamond) returns from a successful battle with his bastard brother Don John (Sean Maher) as a prisoner. Pedro’s follower Claudio (Fran Kranz) is in love with the pure and beautiful Hero (Jillian Morgese), and Don Pedro sets up marriage for them. Except that the evil Don John tricks Claudio and Don Pedro into thinking that Hero is sleeping around. Leading to some ugly scenes, culminating in a faked suicide.
Like I said, dark and weird. It’s not that different, plot-wise, than Othello. Meanwhile, in a side story, Don Pedro and his friend Leonato trick the bickering frenemies Beatrice and Benedick (Fred and Wesley from Angel!) into thinking each loves the other, until they really are in love.
So how do Whedon and his usual gang of actors manage to make this into a screamingly funny movie?
Mostly, because of stuff that’s hard to summarize on paper. The comic timing in this film is impeccable, in a way that will seem familiar to watchers of Buffy or Dr. Horrible. There are tons of clever sight gags worked into every scene. The repartee between Beatrice and Benedick is delivered with a zippy energy that makes the barbs land even if you don’t entirely grok Elizabethan puns. Nathan Fillion almost steals the movie as the standard Shakespearean “bumpkin” character, Dogberry.
Most of all, Whedon’s stable of go-to actors just take this silly, weird material and go all-out with it, relishing every scene and getting every bit of life out of it. Just look at the trailer above, which gives you a nice taste of Alexis Denisov shouting, “I will be horribly in love with her!” and Amy Acker doing a comedy pratfall.
And yet, true to form, Whedon also grapples with the darkness in Shakespeare’s play — going out of his way to show how weird the gender relations are in this world, even before people start suspecting Hero of being a hussy. An early subplot where Don Pedro woos Hero on Claudio’s behalf is played in a way that brings out just how weird and messed-up that idea actually is. So when you get to the part where people are screaming at Hero and calling her a rotten orange, you feel the full weight of it.
But for the most part, this version of Much Ado is light and fluffy, and intensely cute. Perfect palate cleanser between summer tentpole films.
This movie was basically a victory lap for Whedon, after breaking the bank with Avengers, and it could have been a tiresome “here are me and my friends hanging out and doing Shakespeare” exercise — more fun for the cast than the audience. But everybody involved with this film brings a ton of energy and commitment to the material, turning one of Shakespeare’s least funny comedies into a film that had me laughing even louder and more frequently than I did during The Purge.
Much Ado About Nothing is in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco this weekend, expanding to more cities on June 21. See a complete list of cities and opening dates here.