If you buy the cliché that young people who argue and harp at each other are actually flirting, then William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing might have been the first great play to use it. In Joss Whedon’s modern dress adaptation, he has whittled the play to under two hours and presented it in a witty original format.
The story concerns two young lovers who are both possessed of too much wit for their own good and their sharp tongues frequently cut others to bits, but none moreso than themselves, for Beatrice (Amy Acker) and Benedick (Alexis Denisof) constantly cut each other to ribbons. After sleeping together, the two part ways, then, when the victorious army returns from the war, they continue as if nothing had happened.
Beatrice lives with her uncle, Leonato (Clark Gregg), who is the Governor of Messina. Although they are excessively wealthy, she shares a room with Leonato’s daughter, Hero (Jillian Morgese). The Prince of Aragon, Don Pedro (Reed Diamond) comes to visit, bringing with him his disgraced brother, Don John (Sean Maher), and the celebrated war hero, Count Claudio (Fran Kranz) and Benedick. No sooner have they arrived at this beautiful villa than Claudio reveals that he is deeply in love with Hero. Now that the war is over, he wants to marry her and asks Benedick’s advice. A confirmed bachelor, Benedick can only speak of himself, stating that he will never get married, that it is an odious state that can only ruin a man. Unperturbed, Claudio tells Don Pedro about his love and the Prince volunteers to intercede with her at the costume party later that night. He is successful and the marriage is set for a week later.
Don John has brought along two of his associates to help him plot revenge on the lot of them, his girlfriend, Conrade (Riki Lindhome) and a vicious young man named Borachio (Spencer Treat Clark).
For his own amusement, Don Pedro hatches a plot to bring Beatrice and Benedick together: he and the men will have a conversation that Benedick will overhear in which they opine about Beatrice’s secret love for Benedick. Meanwhile, Hero and her maidservant, Margaret (Ashley Johnson) will do the same for Beatrice, letting her know that Benedick is desperately in love with her, but is afraid to tell her because of her acid tongue.
When Don John hears of the intended marriage between Claudio and Hero, he tries to find some way to derail the marriage. Borachio has the answer. He has been involved in a relationship with Margaret and he can set up a scene where she dresses in Hero’s clothing and they make love in Hero’s room, so that Claudio will believe Hero is unfaithful.
The night before the wedding, local security chief, Dogberry (Nathan Fillion) has set out the night watch. Claudio, Don Pedro, and Don John all witness what they assume to be Hero making love with a stranger and Claudio decides to humiliate Hero by exposing her at the wedding. Later that night, Borachio and Conrade are smoking a joint outside as Borachio brags about how he set up the Count Claudio for a fall, when Dogberry’s watch finds them, having overheard Borachio’s confession of villainy. Arrested, Borachio and Conrade are brought in for questioning. Dogberry has a few problems with English in that he frequently says exactly the opposite of what he means, thus confusing the two during their “interrogation.”
Intrigued by what they have heard, each of the other’s secret love, Benedick and Beatrice come together and discover that they really, truly are in love. They pledge themselves to marry.
At Hero’s wedding, Claudio goes through with his threat and roughly accuses Hero of infidelity before the entire assembled wedding party. He and Don Pedro race away and Hero collapses of shock. The minister comes up with a plan that Hero should pretend to be dead, then Claudio will regret his actions and when he finds out she’s alive, they’ll marry anyway. Beatrice, livid with anger over Claudio’s actions, forces Benedick into a duel with Claudio to prove his love to her. Benedick confronts Claudio, telling him that Hero is dead and challenging him to a duel which will take place later.
Before there can be more mayhem and mischief, Dogberry brings Borachio and Conrade to Leonato and reveals that Hero was not immoral on the night before her wedding. And so, there is a double wedding at the end.
There are many things to be loved in this modern day version of the Shakespeare classic. For one thing, many aspects of the story are clear as a bell, rather than buried in pages of language. Whedon has created a beautiful black and white modern world for this play to be set in and it looks beautiful, more like a classic French film than anything American. The actors are all extremely sharp and the characters are extremely well-drawn. Good, young actors contribute a great deal to the success of this movie. Both the men and women are incredibly handsome or beautiful throughout the movie. I don’t think there is one “normal” looking person in the film, which is something that normally bothers me a great deal. Does everyone always have to be supernaturally beautiful? Apparently so.
The movie is quite funny, for the most part, although at times the black and white medium makes it feel like the story is a bit darker than it actually is. Some of the parts are a bit overdone, such as Benedick’s extremely foolish eavesdropping on the conversation that sets him up with Beatrice. Fillion plays Dogberry a little low-key for me and many of the lines that are funny in Shakespeare just look a little dumb with Fillion’s dry delivery.
As with all modern dress versions of Shakespeare, language is a problem. I give full credit to Joss Whedon for doing an excellent job of cutting and compressing the play to get it down into very good length, but when when someone who is apparently modern gives out with “thee” and “thine” and “by my troth” it just doesn’t remotely ring true and frankly, it seems ludicous. From the DVD special features, it seems that this project was put together very quickly using Whedon’s friends who had often read Shakespeare together as a fun thing to do. Perhaps if it had been given a little more preparation, Whedon might have rewritten Shakespeare even a bit further and brought the language into line with the way we talk. But if they just wanted to film friends doing Shakespeare, I guess it wouldn’t be Shakespeare without the language.
This isn’t really Whedon’s fault. Many others have attempted to set Shakespeare in a modern day environment and each of them ultimately fail because Shakespeare’s language is over 400 years old and it sounds archaic and looks dumb when spoken by people dressed like us. Much Ado About Nothing is far more successful than most attempts and I found it to be a highly entertaining, well-acting, well-cut film.
Even so, it requires a willing suspension of disbelief that is way beyond my own rich fantasy life.