Joss Whedon’s career may be one of the most interesting in all of film. Starting off his time in the spotlight as a cult TV icon with as many too-soon cancellations as he had series, he then was given the keys to the Marvel cinematic kingdom, only to helm what would become one of the biggest action films ever made. Since then he’s become Marvel’s second in cinematic command behind point man Kevin Feige but now he’s back with a new directing job. And it’s a doozy.
Proving that you truly cannot keep a filmmaker in a box, his new effort couldn’t be further from his work on a little indie known as The Avengers.
Much Ado About Nothing has debuted at this year’s SXSW Film Festival, and following great buzz from a Toronto premiere last year, it’s safe to say that Whedon is still cruising at the top of his game. Shot in black and white while he was in post-production on the aforementioned Marvel masterpiece, the film is an adaptation of the beloved Shakespeare play, weaving various romances into a web of deception and comedy.
As with most Shakespeare pieces, the narrative features a cavalcade of players. Leading the way are Beatrice, a fiery woman who has given up on love, if she’s ever been a fan of it before. However, opposite her is the equally sarcastic and even more arrogant Benedick, a man who has a past relationship with Beatrice, but things went south fast. Opposite them are the duo of Claudio and Hero, both of whom fall in love fast and without much questioning. However, when Don John catches wind of their pending nuptials, wheels are put into motion to end it faster than it started. And the first couple? The opposite is true. Both are steadfast in their love for being single, but when the collective party tries to change that, things are turned upside down, culminating in one of the smallest, but most entertaining and well made, comedies in quite some time.
One may ask, why did Whedon choose to jump ship from big blockbusters to a small, seemingly shot on a whim comedy shot in his free time? Well, for lack of a better word, exercise. This film feels, to Whedon as a filmmaker, like an athlete running sprints. Whedon pushes himself here, almost as much as he did for The Avengers, just in a different way. Instead of using bombastic and often noisey visuals, Whedon mellows his aesthetic and proves that he’s easily one of the best directors when it comes to getting performances out of his actors.
The entire cast here is out of this world. The four leads (Amy Acker, Alexis Denisof, Fran Kranz and Jillian Morgese) are career best. Acker and Denisof steal the show here as Beatrice and Benedick, both in the moments away from one another, and those together. Acker gives a sense of life to the self-loathing Beatrice, proving that she’s as good with this language as anyone around, and Denisof’s ability to add a slapstick-style of comedy to the film gives this feature an added level of energy unseen by a comedy in quite some time.
The stakes themselves aren’t that high. The drama here takes a side to the comedy. While the performances from the pair in the middle of the story’s dramatic arc, from Fran Kranz and Jillian Morgese as Claudio and Hero, are fine, the drama feels stilted and the stakes almost non-existent. It does feel, dramatically, like a slight exercise of a film, but these four leads do have breathtaking comedic timing that they elevate the project. Toss in supporting performances from the likes of Nathan Fillion, Clark Gregg and Reed Diamond, and you have a cast that may be the best collection of comedic actors that we will see in any comedy this year.
However, the star is Whedon. The black and white photography from Jay Hunter is beautiful, and Whedon’s frame is as full and vibrant as we’ve ever seen from him. It’s a low-key feature film that doesn’t ask him to do too much, but again, the project is elevated by a director who brings his gorgeously composed frames and adds great photography and some top tier performances. This is truly the type of film that Whedon should be using to stay fresh. It’s may not have the cartoonish action set pieces to get the masses in the seats, but what it has that The Avengers doesn’t is heart. And boy, does it have heart.
A tad slight and overlong, Joss Whedon’s latest film Much Ado About Nothing may very well be his best work to date. Full of life, energy and style, the director is back and back in full force. As far from a film like The Avengers as any film could be, this Shakespeare adaptation is a film that will hopefully catch the eyes of those willing to go along for the blast of a ride that Whedon has given us here. It’s truly something special.