Joss Whedon’s new take on Much Ado About Nothing is a perfect blend of a modern setting, Tudor-era language, and slapstick comedy. It embraces the outdated values as if they were normal and the characters seem so comfortable in the 21st century that you would have thought they were born there.
In some ways, the plays of William Shakespeare are timeless, while in others, they are horribly dated. Shakespeare never intended that his plays would transcend time and become some of the most famous works of the English language, or that his works would be second to the Bible in terms of being universally known. History did that for him. He was just writing. If he had been trying to make his plays timeless, we likely wouldn’t be studying them at all.
The comedies are more timeless than the tragedies. Blending Shakespearean dialogue with a modern setting requires a certain element of tongue-and-cheek that the tragedies lack. In order to do the tragedies justice, one usually has to update the dialogue and alter the storyline, or perform the story in the era that Shakespeare intended.
On the other hand, the comedies are supposed to be funny. Shakespeare’s dialogue and a modern setting put together are inherently funny. This version of Much Ado About Nothing plays on the jarring strangeness between the two.
Furthermore, this film is simply fun. There is no better word to describe it. The actors look to be having a good time. There tends to be a lot of partying. The characters who have to be serious are revelling in their seriousness. The villains are enjoying being villains. The heroes are, naturally, enjoying being heroes. This story opens and closes with a party and I left the theatre giggling. Shakespeare wrote to entertain.
Joss Whedon invited a bunch of his favourite actors/friends to create this film at his own house over the course of two weeks. This adds to the sense of fun, as this film is about a gathering of friends and is, in fact, a gathering of friends. It also adds to the realism. The set is not a set – it is a real house, and has the little idiosyncrasies that a real house has.
The film is in black and white, which helps the film to seem timeless and otherworldly. In this alternate (and colourless) world, people speak in Elizabethan poetry, live in a feudal society, embrace misogyny, and are overly concerned with who marries whom, all the while driving cars, using smartphones, and wearing current fashions.
The plot is silliness: a victorious group of high-ranking soldiers, including a prince, come to stay at the home of a wealthy landowner for several weeks. While they are there, one young man aims to marry the landowner’s daughter, one slightly older man is determined not to marry the landowner’s niece (and vice versa) until the rest of the party thinks they ought to match them together, a villain attempts to thwart everyone’s happiness, and an honest policeman attempts to do his job.
Does the film work? Absolutely. Everyone takes the plot just seriously enough to be entertaining. If one has not seen another version of Much Ado About Nothing or has no familiarity with the play, this film will still be comprehensible. The story is quite compelling – will it work out? How so? And moreover, how hilarious is it going to be?
However, if one does not like Shakespeare, this film probably is not going to change one’s mind. There is something to be said for the dialogue being difficult to understand. The modern setting can only help so much. It is a very entertaining comedy, however, so if you have to sit through a Shakespeare film, this is probably the best option.
P.S. – The “honest policeman” is played by Nathan Fillion, and he plays him just as you might suspect his character on Castle might be if he were a) actually a cop, and b) not wealthy. It is a mix of clownish foolishness and utter pathos. For a character included as a comic plot device, Fillion almost steals the show. – And furthermore, next week, we get to see the season premiere of Castle!