Why would the patron saint of geekdom want to tackle Shakespeare? Two reasons. First, Joss Whedon is a good enough writer to be a modern Shakespeare. Second, after delivering a billion dollar haul to Marvel and Disney thanks to ”The Avengers”, he can run naked through the streets of Beverly Hills covered in strawberry jam and call it art if he likes.
Fortunately, Whedon’s idea of art – besides wrangling about seven of the biggest personalities in the superhero universe successfully – is to get a few cameras and a bunch of friends and retell one of the classic love stories of English literature in his Santa Monica house over a couple of weekends.
If you don’t know the story either because you didn’t read it in high school English or didn’t see Kenneth Brannagh’s 1993 adaptation, it’s about a gathering of royalty and noblemen at an estate, the escapades of the heart and what fools it can make of us as it sweeps our best intentions away.
Quite soon into the movie, you realise Whedon’s the perfect director for ”Much Ado About Nothing” for another reason. No matter how different superheroes are from 16th century love stories, there are no less than eight major characters – something the writer/director has proven himself wholly adept at handling.
From the avowed bachelor turned foolish dandy Benedick (Alexis Denisof) to the sharp-tongued cynic whose heart he melts in Beatrice (Amy Acker) and the buffoonish constable Dogberry (Nathan Fillion) and the loving family patriarch Leonato (Clark Gregg), every character plays an integral part in what fools we are for love.
There’s always one of several ways you can play Shakespeare, and the way every director approaches it is just as interesting as the story being told. Franco Zeffirelli went traditional in ”Hamlet” (1990), Baz Luhrmann used the Shakespearian vernacular in a contemporary setting in ”Romeo + Juliet” (1996) and the whole thing was transposed into a modern teen comedy in ”10 Things I Hate About You” (1999, based on ”The Taming of the Shrew”).
Whedon slightly rewrites the bard with some modern twists and gives his cast some good physical comedy to match it, but everyone drives cars and wears suits, Whedon’s own house in LA standing in for the port city of Messina.
If you’ve never read Shakespeare and feel too ashamed to tell other cineastes you couldn’t keep up with the density of the 400 year old language (especially because it’s often delivered at gatling-gun pace), don’t worry too much. The cast are all good enough to deliver the spirit of the words in their gestures and emotions, and you’ll be surprised how timeless Shakespeare’s words (to say nothing of his insights into the human condition) really are. It takes a little bit of work, but you’ll understand everything enough to appreciate what’s taking place.
As a director Whedon seems to understand what he believes Shakespeare’s intentions were – to portray love as an exercise in supreme folly, and to show us young, attractive people tasting it for the first time and the older and wiser brought under the spells of its agony and ecstasy despite their experience.
With its celebratory atmosphere, it could be a much leaner cousin to ”The Great Gatsby”, which also has a genesis in Shakespeare thanks to its director. Shakespeare and Whedon both show us beautiful, privileged people in the throes of a polite but hedonistic society where cupid runs rampant and causes as much trouble as possible. Parties and wine flow in equal measure amongst fine suits and pretty dresses, and if it gets enough attention, the very cool soundtrack will be as well received as Lurhmann’s take on 1920s New York.
Like Shakespeare’s best works, it’s often a comedy of errors of misunderstandings, eavesdropping and treachery, and Whedon revels in putting a very accomplished cast through the same trials.