Much Ado About Nothing has always been my favorite play by Shakespeare, mainly because of Kenneth Branagh. As with all Shakespeare – if you want to see the best version, see the Kenneth Branagh version (His Henry V has an entire act in French, I think just so he could show off). His version of Much Ado About Nothing was released in 1993. It starred Richard Briers as Leonato, Kate Beckinsdale as Hero, Robert Sean Leonard as Claudio, Imelda Staunton as Margaret, Denzel Washington as Don Pedro, Keanu Reeves as Don John, the scene-stealing Michael Keaton as Dogberry, and since they were still together at that time, Emma Thompson as Beatrice and Branagh himself as Benedick. It’s my favorite of Branagh’s films (next to Dead Again) and easily my favorite of his Shakespeare.
In 2011, Joss Whedon was working on the Avengers, and decided to recover by shooting a version of the Shakespeare play Much Ado About Nothing at his house in Santa Monica with his friends. Since this was basically a bunch of pals hanging out, it provides for a relaxed, natural feel to the performances, which is necessary – since it’s still Shakespeare’s words which are formal and can be off-putting for those not used to them.
The story of Much Ado is fairly ridiculous, as with all Shakespeare “comedies”. In this particular story, Leonato is a wealthy man living in Messina, Italy. He has a daughter, Hero, and a niece, Beatrice. He and his family and staff are living in their large home when the prince, Don Pedro, announces he’s stopping by on the way back from some battle to somewhere else. He’s old friends with Leonato and has stopped at his place before. In Don Pedro’s company are his two friends, Benedick and Claudio, as well as his brother Don John – who is in custody for some villainous deed.
Upon the arrival at the house, Leonato decides they will have a huge party. Claudio catches a glimpse of Hero and decides he’s in love with her and wants to marry her (yes, just that quickly). The prince, Don Pedro, agrees to pretend to be Claudio at the party and woo Hero for Claudio and make a deal with her father for her hand, since Claudio is a little shy. Meanwhile, Beatrice and Benedick have a previous relationship in which they verbally spar and do a lot of name-calling towards the other, but both claim to never want love or marriage. At the party, Don Pedro’s plan goes off without a hitch, however, Don John, having gotten wind of the plan, tells Claudio that the prince was wooing Hero for himself – for no reason other than to cause mischief. Why Claudio believes this known troublemaker is befuddling.
Well, Claudio gets a bit of an attitude, but that is quickly fixed. The wedding is set for the next day, and the prince tells everyone they will pass the time trying to get Benedick and Beatrice to fall in love and get married by secretly letting each know that the other is in love with them. It’s convoluted, but of course it works. In the meantime, Don John devises another plan to break up the wedding by having one of his sidekicks screw Margaret while calling her Hero where Claudio and the Prince can see – so that they think Hero is cheating on Claudio the night before the wedding. This goes exactly as you think it will – Claudio calls Hero out for “not being a maid” at the wedding in front of everyone with the Prince backing him up, and Don John smirking in the background.
Hero claims this is all lies that she is still a virgin, but Claudio gets really mean, so she passes out. Beatrice pronounces her dead (dead, really?) and Claudio and the prince take off. She recovers just in time for her father Leonato to yell at her for a bit – then the friar comes up with a plan, since he believes Hero is telling the truth, to let Claudio think she’s dead, and make him feel guilty. Benedick and Beatrice profess their love to each other, and she asks him to kill Claudio as revenge for her cousin during a breakdown of sorts.
Meanwhile, Don John’s sidekick, Borachio, is bragging to Conrade, when they are arrested by the hilariously inept local watch. The head of the watch, Dogberry, who is just this side of incompetent, takes his confession, which Borachio gives once he learns Hero died. Dogberry takes this information to Claudio and Don Pedro.
Claudio begins to fall apart and asks what he can do to make it up to Leonato – Leonato makes him promise to go mourn at Hero’s grave that night, and come back to the house in the morning to marry his brother’s daughter. Don John tries to flee, but is caught. Claudio and the prince come back to the house – and Claudio gets married to the niece, who is actually Hero in disguise, and Beatrice and Benedick – after being called out by notes they had each written, agree that they each love the other and should get married. Ta da! Happy ending.
Like I said, a completely ridiculous story – with some really outdated notions about love and marriage (it was originally written in 1599), but completely loony and can be very funny depending on the performances. In the Branagh version, Michael Keaton steals the movie, and Thompson and Branagh as Beatrice and Benedick are fabulous.
In the Joss Whedon version, peopled with Whedon regulars, everyone is certainly capable.
- Clark Gregg plays Leonato (his Whedon connections are Avengers 2011, and Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD 2013). Originally, this was going to be Anthony Head (Giles from Buffy), however, he had scheduling conflicts and was unable to do it. Gregg was a great choice to fill in, and is wonderful as the head of this insane household.
- Amy Acker plays Beatrice (Angel 1999, Dollhouse 2009, Cabin in the Woods 2012). She doesn’t have quite the fire that Thompson gave the role, but she’s certainly believably opposed to the whole situation. Her reaction to Hero’s slander is more pouty than angry.
- Alexis Denisof plays Benedick (Buffy 1997, Angel 1999, Dollhouse 2009, Avengers 2012), and it was a good idea to team him with Acker, since they spent a few years of Angel wooing each other. This movie gives them a chance to trade some witty barbs, which they do well. His improvised push-ups while trying to impress her really cracked me up. The best parts of the play are Benedick talking to himself and Denisof does pull that off really well.
- Reed Diamond plays Don Pedro (Dollhouse 2009, Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD 2014). He does a really good job of portraying the prince as genuinely wanting to make everybody else happy and helping them fall in love, with just a touch of sadness when he’s left all alone.
- Fran Kranz plays Claudio (Dollhouse 2009, Cabin in the Woods 2012), and since he’s really annoyed me in both Dollhouse and Cabin in the Woods, I wasn’t sure how I would feel about him as Claudio, but he was actually better than I expected. He was a little more toned-down than I had seen him in the past.
- Jillian Morgese plays Hero (she was an extra in the Avengers, which caused Joss to ask her to audition for this). She’s quite good, and plays Hero as young, innocent, and smitten with Claudio.
- Sean Maher plays Don John (Firefly 2002), and Whedon gave him this role after hearing that he had never played a ‘bad guy’. He’s very evil in this role, which is always a bit weird, because it’s never explained why Don John is so evil – He just states that he is a “plain dealing villain”.
- Spencer Treat Clarke plays Borachio, who has a quick attack of conscious after helping Don John with his villainy, but then realizing that Hero is said to be dead…quickly confesses.
- Riki Lindhome plays Conrade (Buffy 1997), who is usually a man in other versions, but honestly, it doesn’t matter – and Lindhome is pleasantly terrible in this role. I particularly enjoy her calling Dogberry an ‘ass’.
- Ashley Johnson plays Margaret (Dollhouse 2009, Avengers 2012), the maid who helps with bad plot, without really knowing what she was doing.
- Tom Lenk as Verges (Buff 1997, Angel 1999, Cabin in the Woods 2012) – he’s really there to play Fillion’s sidekick and allow him to be even more hilarious.
- Nathan Fillion plays Dogberry (Buffy 1997, Firefly 2002, Dr. Horrible 2008) which again is the role that steals the movie. So if you put someone brilliant in that role, chances are that they will be the most memorable part of the movie. He has no problem playing stupid and relishes the chance to ‘look the fool’ and made me want more of him in this movie.
Overall, I enjoyed it, but, not nearly as much as I enjoyed the Branagh version. While it was really neat to see it in modern times, and in black and white, since some of the themes are really outdated (marriage in one night? Brokering for the daughter with the father? Death by slander?!) – it’s difficult to reconcile that with the modern setting. It can be a little distancing. Still, it’s always fun to see a group of friends play together. I do wish that Whedon had taken the next step, and updated the language to modern as well – I would have loved to have seen his take on that, but since this was basically done in two weeks at his house, there wasn’t really time for that! It’s certainly well crafted, and if you haven’t seen it, you should check it out. You can Netflix it now.
7 out of 10 (the Branagh version gets 9 out of 10). Gained points for the quick shoot and the single location. Lost points for the black and white. Gained points for the comfortable and casual interactions, and Fillion and Lenk improvising the “keys locked in the car” bit.
Bonus Video 1: Branagh’s Othello
Bonus Video 2: Branagh’s Dead Again – see this if you haven’t.