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Toronto Review: Joss Whedon Turns Shakespeare Into an Airy Comedy With Lightweight ‘Much Ado About Nothing’

Toronto Review: Joss Whedon Turns Shakespeare Into an Airy Comedy With Lightweight 'Much Ado About Nothing'

There’s a certain irony to Joss Whedon’s adaptation of “Much Ado About Nothing”: While the script culls a beloved literary achievement more than 400 years old, it has relatively uncomplicated aims. Made in the immediate aftermath of Whedon’s massive production of “The Avengers” and shot over the course of a two-week period at the cult director’s Santa Monica home, “Much Ado About Nothing” has the scrappy feel of a high school play populated by professionals looking to take the pressure off. Call it a Shakespearean catharsis or just call it a lark — either way, the movie represents Whedon’s least essential work, regardless of the material’s inherent comedic inspiration.   

Appropriately, the story of “Much Ado About Nothing” is contained enough to fit Whedon’s low aims. Setting the action in a posh suburban neighborhood, the director’s take remains faithful to the exploits of Benedick (Alexis Denisof) and Beatrice (Amy Acker), acquaintances unwilling to admit their mutual attraction. Meanwhile, Claudio (Fran Kranz) and Hero (Jillian Morgese) initially plan to get married until the scheming Don John (Sean Maher) lies about Hero’s infidelity and ruins the wedding. The situation is investigated by the constable Dogberry (Nathan Fillion). Hero’s father Leonato (Clark Gregg) agrees to fake Hero’s death as a means of convincing Claudio to fall in love with her again.

While the material is fairly consistent with the source, the contemporary setting means that all these characters deliver their Elizabethan dialogue in suits and other modern day ware, while carrying cell phones, driving cars and otherwise going out their lives under the signs of modernity. Shakespeare’s plays have been explored through this process so often that the approach is essentially a subgenre unto itself, but in “Much Ado About Nothing,” the technique feels less like calculation than laziness.

The actors, many of whom repeatedly surface in Whedon’s oeuvre, leer and smirk at each other while delivering their lines as though the entire production constituted an inside joke. While the black-and-white cinematography underlines the disconnect between setting and plot, the movie is otherwise unremarkably staged through production values that make Whedon’s web series “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-a-Long Blog” look like a blockbuster.

Of course, to a large degree because the actors realize the potential of the material, “Much Ado About Nothing” has plenty of funny moments, many of which are slapstick. The attempts made by the klutzy Benedict to impress Beatrice with a series of manly poses are matched by a similar show of bravado by Fillion as his character attempts to maintain the air of a slick detective. At the movie’s world premiere, thousands of hardcore Whedon fans erupted into loud guffaws at each of these small moments, giving too much credit to the throwaway gags that exclusively define the movie’s negligible appeal.

Other plot threads are decidedly less effective. The plight of Hero and meek Claudio has been rendered fairly bland, a trait that apparently runs in Hero’s family: Her affluent father Leonato is unsophisticatedly brought to life by Gregg in a performance that borders on self-parody. Nevertheless, by the time the movie arrives at its climactic party scene, “Much Ado About Nothing” has unapologetically made clear that nobody involved wants more from the material than to play around with it.

That could make the movie into a useless exercise if it didn’t bear Whedon’s stamp. One of the few mainstream genre directors capably of squeezing humanity into stories that frequently rely on special effects, Whedon admirably pays tribute to the traditions of popular entertainment that precede him. However, for its duration, “Much Ado About Nothing” feels less like Whedon doing Shakespeare than Shakespeare doing Whedon.

Criticwire grade: C+

HOW WILL IT PLAY? Whedon’s fans will bring the movie some level of cult potential, but its theatrical prospects are extremely limited. An alternative grassroots release seems most likely.

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"The plight of Hero and meek Claudio has been rendered fairly bland…"

Well yes, but blame that on the Bard: the Hero/Claudio plotline has always been one of the weakest points of the play. Directors can basically do one of two things: turn it into a rather transparent device to drive the Beatrice/Benedick plot, or pump it into over-the-top Romeo-and-Juliet-grade melodrama. Branagh had Robert Sean Leonard's gurning to cover the second option in 1993, so why not go for the first this time?


It's difficult to take a review seriously when the reviewer seems more intent on disparaging the work than providing a critical analysis. What kind of a remark is 'appropriately, the story of "Much Ado About Nothing" is contained enough to fit Whedon's low aims' ? Low aims? Forgive the oxymoron, but your sub-textual diatribe is unfitting of a film critic. There is nothing wrong with disliking a film and finding fault in a work, but cheap shots are not a substitute for good writing.


Just wanted to add that I haven't seen this film.


Eric: I agrre with your points completely but I disagree with your grade: too generous.
Unlike some of your critics, I appreciate the honesty and directness of your reviews. Thank you


I think that you are being far too critical of a movie, that was basically made as a fun little side project. Made in 12 days and after working for a couple of years on a huge multi-million project and staring your friends…what else would it be? This was basically some fun and talented people blowing off steam, having fun, and inviting the audience to come along for the ride. So my suggestion for you, and others, is just to sit back and enjoy. Too many people try and make Shakespeare too deep and serious when it needs to be taken as just a lark.


I am going to have so much more fun at this movie than the reviewer did. :-D




It seems to me like Eric had already made his mind up before seeing the film. What a shame. Indiewire would do well to rid themselves of him and his shoddy review style. I saw the film at TIFF, and while I agree with the review on a number of points, it is the attitude and blatant bias that let it down. I've never wanted to punch someone I largely agree with in the face so much. Congratulations on that.


This review feels like it was being snarky on purpose. Like you had to complain to counter all the recent praise. You realize this was a fun side project shot in 12 days yes? It wasn't a long planned project meant to be taken totally seriously it was made to relax and have a bit of fun. Way to miss the point and be overly critical


You might have enjoyed it more had you taken it all way less seriously than you clearly did. Too bad, it's a wonderful film, all the way.


Humourless trash. Try harder, indiewire.

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