Is ‘Ado’ Whedon’s worst?

Dogberry (Nathan Fillion, right) and Verges (Tom Lenk) made for welcome comic relief in Joss Whedon's "Much Ado About Nothing."

Dogberry (Nathan Fillion, right) and Verges (Tom Lenk) made for welcome comic relief in Joss Whedon’s “Much Ado About Nothing.”

The short answer: Yes, Much Ado About Nothing is Joss Whedon’s worst offering.

The long answer is more interesting, though, when the final product is filtered through the lens of the limitations imposed on the production.

1. Time and assets. Whedon shot this during a break in The Avengers over two weeks, in black and white, in his own home, on virtually no budget. Two weeks. No budget. Name another director who creates movies on the scale of The Avengers that could do this. It took James Cameron two weeks to get the tables set in the grand ballroom during the shooting of Titanic. Steven Spielberg thinks “low budget” means you have to choose between Will Smith and Tom Cruise instead of having both of them in your movie. Much Ado About Nothing is barely related to The Avengers, Avatar, Jurassic Park, etc. Its blood kin are Clerks, El Mariachi, Pi. Yes, Whedon was lucky to get pals like TV star Nathan Fillion and Avengers everyman Clark Gregg to appear in his little indie flick, which made it bankable come time to put it up in theaters. But the filmmaking itself was quick, cheap and dirty.

2. Dated source material. First of all, before a bunch of overstuffed Anglophiles get their barrister’s wigs in a bunch, I’m not bashing Shakespeare here. However, some of Will’s writing doesn’t translate well to the modern era. The subplot of Hero faking her death to bring back an aggrieved Claudio falls so very, very flat. If the daughter of a wealthy, well-known industrialist (here, royalty in Will’s original) was “dead” in current times, the scheme would never work because it would be on Twitter in about 3.7 seconds, followed by every news-generating machine on the planet sending reporters immediately to the front door of her father’s home and camping there through the funeral. And if that young woman was dead because her wealthy, famous groom had found out that she’d been deflowered? The E Network would establish a bureau in that very neighborhood, and People magazine would enact mandatory overtime for the foreseeable future. It doesn’t work in Whedon’s Ado, and I’m not sure you can make that work when – as Shakespeare favored – you do the play in modern settings and costume. As good as Willy Shake is, some of his work isn’t as universal as your high school English teacher would have you believe.

3. Too much of one, not enough of the other. Sorry, but the Hero-Claudio stuff is pretty lame, even without the carbon-dated, fake-death sub-plot. The real story is the Beatrice-Benedick battle of the sexes. And that’s what shines in Whedon’s adaptation. Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof capture the love-hate relationship, the uncertainty, the fear of commitment, the comedy and the pathos. Dy-no-mite! But we unfortunately have to keep going back to Hero-Claudio, which is really only worth it when the “palace guard” – the po po, here played by Fillion and Tom Lenk – do their Keystone Cops routine. Fillion and Lenk make the Hero storyline worth watching, but are barely on screen. What I’d have liked to have seen was Whedon really tear apart Ado and make it modern, with a heavier focus on Beatrice and Benedick. (Or, hell, just write his own romantic comedy.) I’d have to imagine that would have been an amazing feat, much like what author Christopher Moore did with King Lear in his book, Fool.

Final verdict: Yes, it’s Whedon’s worst. But much like Shakespeare’s worst, that makes it better than about 98.5% of the comedies/dramas/etc. produced on the planet in any given year. Take the plunge. It’s still worth it.

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