After so many years of struggling to maintain his distinctive voice in an entertainment industry that instinctively wants to exploit it (and the fan base that responds to it with Pavlovian fervor) but doesn’t truly understand it, Joss Whedon finally figured out a method or two to be left alone to do what he wants. Yes, writing and directing a film that makes a billion-and-a-half dollars is a good way to command fealty from studio execs, but while I’d argue that Whedon’s gifts contributed mightily to that film’s success, there’s also the matter of Marvel Studios’ extended, multi-film, multi-year plan that practically guaranteed a blockbuster the first time the Avengers assembled. It’s Whedon’s other strategy, first employed in between the shooting and post-production of Marvel’s The Avengers, that holds greater promise, both for the longevity of its facility and the greater opportunity for artistic satisfaction that it affords.
Whedon and his wife established Bellwether Pictures, a production house specifically designed to make what he refers to as micro-budgeted features. And what better way for Whedon to keep costs down than to shoot in his own backyard, literally. For an adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, Whedon turned his own home into a set, recruiting a cast largely comprised of actors with a fair amount of experience traipsing around different corners of the Whedonverse. It’s a clear extension of the weekend gatherings Whedon has hosted for years, bringing people over to read Shakespeare aloud, eating, drinking and presumably being merry along the way. It’s to Whedon’s great credit that the resulting film, shot in black-and-white and exhibiting a cheery unpolished quality that belies its rapid production schedule lasting less than two weeks, doesn’t come across as a boondoggle lark. Instead, it’s heartfelt and charming, a mash note to the exuberant bliss of stories well told.
Though Shakespeare’s comedic tale of a bevy of star-crossed lovers is presented in a modern day setting while preserving the original language, there’s nothing especially innovative to the work. Indeed, probably the most notable addition Whedon makes to the text is the inclusion of regular, robust consumption of alcohol throughout the proceedings, partially an inside joke homage to those boozy weekends with friends that served as a trial run for the movie, no doubt, but it’s useful in that the clouded judgment that comes with all those spirits helps justify some of the more impetuous, problematic decisions the characters make. Whedon isn’t trying to transform Shakespeare’s work. He wants to embrace it, playing with the language, the character, the spriteliness and the seriousness with equal vigor. Whedon is completely engaged in honoring the original text, which can make it seem less purposeful than bolder film adaptations but also winds up infusing the film with an endearing earnestness. Like go-getter kids in a old movie, Whedon and his cohorts just really want to put on a show.
And they put on that show with aplomb, albeit with varying levels of accomplishment. Whedon is smooth and clear as a director, although dual compunctions for sitcom-styled physical gags and the occasional overly showy shot signal the–to be charitable–raw, rushed natured of the production. And while everyone in the cast is game, only a few–Clark Gregg and Reed Diamond among them–truly distinguish themselves. The best performance comes from Amy Acker as the sharp-tongued and suddenly smitten Beatrice. She invests the character with bright personality and an internal, whirring intelligence, the latter helping immeasurably to make the tricky, cumbersome language seem crisp and modern. Given Acker’s longtime role as Fred on Whedon’s Angel, it’s likely that she was part of his household troupe of Shakespearean performers, and she’d good enough in the film that it’s plausible the director picked this particular play to adapt in order to specifically share her take on the character with a wider audience. Even as I type it out, that supposition seems like a stretch, except that it’s entirely in keeping with the generosity of spirit present in abundance in this Much Ado About Nothing. It may not be a perfect film, but in its kind imperfections, it’s a lovely one.