During a 12-day break between principal photography and post production on The Avengers, writer-director Joss Whedon called his regular TV stock company and whipped up this larky little low-budget Shakespeare adaptation. Literally a home movie, Much Ado About Nothing was filmed in Whedon’s house. The spirit is commendable; why not unwind from the stresses of a massive blockbuster shoot by inviting all your old friends over to riff on the Bard of Avon’s funniest play?
Problem is, it’s a terrible movie. Even by the standards of home movies. Indifferently photographed on smeary, consumer-grade, black-and-white digital video, Much Ado shovels mass quantities of iambic pentameter into the mouths of untrained third-string television actors, most of whom appear to have learned their lines phonetically. Not since Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet have I been so convinced that so many in a cast had so little idea of what they were saying. Half of these folks might as well have been speaking Klingon.
For those who either flunked freshman literature or missed Kenneth Branagh’s and Emma Thompson’s sparkling 1993 big-screen adaptation, Much Ado About Nothing is a featherweight romp of musical beds and mixed-up identities, with the “merry war” between proto-screwball stars Beatrice (nicely played by Amy Acker) and Benedick (the horrific Alexis Denisof) bantering in a bickering animosity that can only mean true love. There’s also some gnarly business with a sinister plot by the King’s dastardly bastard brother trying to convince everybody that his rival’s new bride is a skank.
Set in present-day with all the King’s men donning sleek Secret Service uniforms, Whedon’s Much Ado doesn’t do much with the modern update and fouls the nest at the outset with a wordless prologue suggesting Beatrice’s and Benedick’s rivalry is the result of a bungled one-night stand.
Whedon packs the crowded frames with ill-timed pratfalls, constantly attempting everything he can to distract from the pleasures of the text. It’s all buffoonish clowning around, sexy-time pantomimes and drunken dances. The barn door-sized performance by Denisof might be my new least favorite thing ever, as I kept waiting for him to slip on a banana peel. It’s a pretty funny play on its own, fellas. There’s no need to keep pulling faces and bumping your head against stuff.
I went home and took another look at Branagh’s version, and now suddenly Keanu Reeves doesn’t seem so bad in it.