Last year director Joss Whedon shredded the global box office with his big, loud, sprawling take on The Avengers, a blockbuster superhero mash-up that earned the Buffy brain trust no small amount of industry cred. The quality was pretty good — there were fist pumping genre tropes and caped crusading galore, but people-oriented direction and sensible scaling of set pieces.
The Avengers earned more than a decade’s worth of A grade cocaine for studio executives to Hoover up, and funds for more glitter than even Baz Luhrmann could pour from the sky: a cool one and half billion bucks worldwide, making it the third highest box office earner of all time and a pretty good reminder that hybrid hero movies make seriously good happy meals for Hollywood, fans and financiers walking away with the same kind of shit-eating grins, but for very different reasons.
A smash hit sequel is on its way, of course, which makes Whedon’s intermediary project — shot in black and white, at his Santa Monica home, in twelve days, with his friends, on a shoestring budget, adapted from a play by William Shake-something-or-other — such a delectable proposition.
The dialogue in Much Ado About Nothing remains untouched despite a contemporary setting, and those rich, dense, melodic monologues flow as abundantly as the generous portions of wine Whedon’s characters quaff. Claudio (Fran Kranz) is set to marry Hero (Jillian Morgese) but complications, and a touch of staged death, muddy the ceremony. Meanwhile two acid-tongued Lady Love naysayers – Beatrice (Amy Acker) and Benedick (a scene stealing Alexis Denisof) – come together under a mistaken affection for each other that slowly ferments into real emotion.
Whedon makes subtle and precise visual plays to add fizz to the source material. In one scene two doofus police officers discover they have locked their keys in their car; in another, Whedon extracts giggles simply by showing a character take a muffin. Jay Hunter’s black and white cinematography suits the film’s inherently anachronistic settings, provides an ongoing intimation that the present, in this context, is a case of time out of mind.
If the soul of Much Ado About Nothing is Shakespeare’s prose, the heart comes from the players (almost all Whedon regulars) wrapping their tongues around it. The director is more than happy to disappear into the framework to get the most out of his actors. That seems to be at least partly the point, and while the shoot may have wrapped in less than a fortnight the cast’s understanding of how to deliver it must have evolved painstakingly. They were in very good hands: Much Ado is a modest but beautifully constructed film that feels fresh despite its age, colourful despite its muted palette and grand despite its architecture.
If every mega budget director followed a $100 million project with a movie that cost comparatively next to nothing, Hollywood would return some fascinating acid tests. Luhrmann, for one, would have been forced to throw ideas rather than money at his not-so-great Gatsby. Without all those digits in the bank account, his “style” would have been tested rather than misappropriated as a justification to smother and embellish. Whedon has done no such thing; in Much Ado he burrowed into the source material, identified what makes it special then found a way to package it to his fans, who have another, well deserved, reason to like him.