Joss Whedon of Avengers fame grossly misreads Shakespeare in a frustrating adaptation
The year was 2012. In between making Avengers flicks, Marvel’s chief creative, Joss Whedon, stole a few weeks of time to direct an adaptation of Shakespeare’s classic comedy Much Ado About Nothing. Filmed over 12 days in Whedon’s own home, the movie likely served as a harried artistic release for Whedon between two major studio blockbuster projects. Unfortunately Much Ado fumbles in adapting Shakespeare’s story to a modern setting and suffers from tonal inconsistencies between the director’s vision and the original story.
For all that can be criticized about this movie, it is nothing if not faithful to the source material. The dialogue is relatively untouched, which means that the fun banter and witty dick jokes Shakespeare is known for are here. On the flipside, however, the film also brings with it all the jarring and antiquated principles which were prominent in Shakespeare’s time. This, in theory, should be fine as there is an argument to be made for presenting Shakespeare’s work honestly. The issue with Whedon’s version lies in its adaptation. It doesn’t give us all five acts, and it is set in a modern context, creating a dissonance between how the film looks and how the film plays out. The actors dress in modern attire and use modern mannerisms, but they espouse a 16th century view of the world. I can’t get into specifics without going into spoiler territory, but suffice to say that it comes across as a poorly thought-out adaption because of this.
It’s also clear that the actors aren’t comfortable performing Shakespeare. Maybe if they had been given more time to rehearse they could have breathed more life into their characters. As it is, everyone is over-acting to cover their unfamiliarity with the material as they consistently reach for high drama and ignore the inherently silly aspects of the story.
Therein lies the biggest criticism of this film: Whedon & Co. refuse to recognize the inherent comedy and fail to update the dramatic elements, resulting in a confused, half-comedic, sputtering drama which never finds its footing. It relies exclusively on contrived dramatic tension, which is largely unsupported by the narrative, and doesn’t give us the comedy that normally propels the plot. The film goes for the obvious jokes but fails to see the silliness present in situations. Whedon forces it to play out as a thrilling romance when, in reality, it’s more of a black comedy. Much of the film is trying to walk up a down escalator, and it’s tiring.
That being said, they don’t ruin all of Shakespeare’s jokes. The story, while tone deaf and awkwardly told, is still entertaining. The black and white visuals are frequently beautiful, if self-indulgent, but they don’t help with the issue of it being played too dramatically. If you are completely unfamiliar with the story, this is a fairly inoffensive film – but don’t look under the hood because you won’t find any of the Shakespearean subtleties you’re hoping for. When I saw this movie all I could see was wasted potential.