Shakespeare’s comedies are, according to my own intuition, the lesser works when ambition grips to master his plays. If I want to pull a play off the shelf to read, it would be history first, tragedy second—I prefer obscure classics. And yet, of all I’ve seen or read, and that is admittedly fewer than half, Much Ado About Nothing (1600), is a true favorite. It is the dramatic negative to Hamlet (1598). Where Hamlet is often deep and thoughtful and sometimes hilarious, Much Ado About Nothing is mostly fun and sometimes dark and sad. Joss Whedon’s recent adaptation, though I would rather call it a transplant, expresses this exactly. It isn’t perfectly done to my taste with camera or delivery, but it does honor the words. It brought out the plays depth with a little black and white.
Don Pedro (Reed Diamond) has won a war against his brother John (Sean Maher) and has come this day to Messina where lives the wealthy lord Leonato (Clark Gregg) and his beautiful daughter Hero (Jillian Morgese). Pedro was betrothed to Hero, but Pedro’s right hand, Claudio (Fran Kranz) has fallen for her (and she for him) and Pedro will not stand in their way. A less happy couple exist in Benedick (Alexis Denisof) and Beatrice (Amy Acker) who are engaged in a war of words after a brief tryst ended poorly. This joyous house party of fun and much alcohol could not go unspoiled. John, “a plain-dealing villain”, wants to do some mischief to avenge his loss and express his nature.
I don’t know if Much Ado About Nothing is the original screwball comedy, but it must be one of the earliest examples. Very clever punning and verbal jujitsu with and between Benedick and Beatrice absolutely make the movie. Denisof, though very good in his physical comedy, often delivers the glittering dialogue as though disinterested when the line calls for dynamism or oscillates like a clown when it should be a murmur. And yet, the language saves him. He is, if nothing, clear-spoken and has the measure of the character. Acker, on the other hand, is just good start to finish. Do they compete with Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson from the fabulous 1993 version? They’re different. Branagh, as you might expect, transliterates the play to a film as director while Whedon wants to clean it up a little with some realism (possibly going too far in that direction). It were an excellent film that were made just in the midway between Whedon and Branagh. Branagh and Thompson are such good actors and have terrific voices for Shakespeare that it isn’t a fair competition or comparison. I’d love to seem their 1993 selves cast in Whedon’s adaptation. I grow giddy at the idea.
While I’m on the subject of comparisons, I’ll mention Dogberry. Michael Keaton’s Dogberry is the highlight of the 1993 film. His greasy, slimy, crazy character is absolutely hilarious. But it’s Nathan Fillion’s performance that gives some appreciation to Shakespeare’s character. Listening to Fillion, I was struck by how much I missed in Keaton’s low grumbling. It feels like a spoiler to describe how funny Dogberry is, so I’ll simply say that Shakespeare is a genius and Will Ferrell’s frequent imitation of Dogberry only shames Will Ferrell.
As I said, Whedon’s adaptation makes me appreciate Shakespeare and the value of this play far beyond the quality farce I had thought it to be. It inspires me to read some of those other comedies that I didn’t consider worth my time simply because they were discussed as though they were interchangeable. Like they were grist for a Shakespeare company’s mill. This can be no trick.
It’s in black and white and I hardly even noticed. I think it just makes it look classy.