So, you’ve broken the billion dollar world-wide gross level with the second movie you directed. You’re a superhero to all the fans who’ve watched your television shows. You’ve signed on to make the sequel of your hit movie. What else would you do with the time in between shooting big-budget blockbusters other than gather a bunch of friends at your house and film a black-and-white modern-day adaptation of Will Shakespeare’s comedy Much Ado About Nothing?
You would if you’re Joss Whedon. Filming the play had long been a passion project for Whedon, but it became reality when his wife Kai Cole suggested he do it in lieu of celebrating their 20th anniversary. So in October of 2011, after finishing principle photography on The Avengers, Whedon gathered a troop of actor friends at his house and in 12 days shot the play. (One past collaborator, Anthony Head – Giles on “Buffy The Vampire Slayer” – was to have participated, but had a scheduling conflict. His role was taken by Clark Gregg – Agent Colson from The Avengers and Whedon’s upcoming TV series “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.”)
The story, originally set in Messina, Sicily in the 1500s, translates surprisingly well to modern-day Southern California. Leonato (Gregg) is visited Don Pedro (Reed Diamond), who’s just finished a campaign against his rebellious brother Don John (Sean Maher). Leonato has two beautiful daughters, the gracious Hero (Jilian Morgese) and the sharp-witted Beatrice (Amy Acker). With Don Pedro is the earnest, young Claudio (Fran Kranz) and the older, jaded Benedick (Alexis Denisof). Benedick and Beatrice have a history together and their verbal battles are legendary. The others conspire to have Benedick and Beatrice fall in love.
Love also blossoms between Claudio and Hero. However, Don John and his two attendants, Borachio (Spencer Treat Clark) and Conrade (Riki Lindhome) conspire against Claudio and Hero’s happiness, with the unwitting help of Margaret (Ashley Johnson), the family maid. The head of Security, Dogberry (Nathan Fillion) and his assistant Verges (Tom Lenk) stumble onto the plot, but don’t have the wit to understand what they’ve learned. Being Shakespeare, the plot involves duels, death, and betrayal before it all works out at the end. The only real difference between Shakespeare’s comedies and tragedies is, with the tragedies, it doesn’t work out in the end.
Except for abridging the play, Whedon made only two changes to it. He added a dialog-less scene at the opening which gives a 21st Century motivation to Beatrice and Benedick’s verbal sparring, and he eliminated one anti-Semitic reference. Whedon also wrote music to accompany Shakespeare’s verse in the play, which was performed by Whedon’s brother and sister-in-law, Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen. Jed and Maurissa had collaborated with Whedon on Dr. Horrible’s Sing-along Blog.
Denisof and Acker worked together for several seasons on “Angel,” and their chemistry together is undeniable. They’re almost upstaged, though, by Fillion, who embodies Dogberry, one of Shakespeare’s funniest characters, with a pompous seriousness that is hilarious. If you want to see what an actor can do within a role, compare Fillion’s performance with Michael Keaton’s in the Kenneth Branagh’s 1993 version of the play. Both are fine embodiments and funny, but they are completely different.
Fillion has the most direct collaborations with Whedon, having performed in “Buffy,” “Firefly,” Serenity and Dr. Horrible’s Sing-along Blog. Denisof did the character of Wesley on both “Buffy” and “Angel,” and also appeared on “Dollhouse,” as did Acker. The others in the cast have all been in one or two of Whedon’s movies or TV series, with one exception: Spencer Treat Clark. Many, though, have seen him perform as a child actor when he did the young Lucius in Gladiator.
The discovery in the movie is Jilian Morgese as Hero. She had been hired for The Avengers for a nonspeaking role as a waitress friend of Ashley Johnson, during the climactic battle by Grand Central Station. Originally Johnson was to become a love interest for Captain America, but that part of the story got cut in post-production. Morgese was in New York pursuing a career as a dancer originally, but had decided to switch to acting. The part in The Avengers was her first screen appearance. Between takes she would talk with Whedon, and when it came time to cast the second lead, he remembered her. She acquits herself beautifully in the role.
While Much Ado About Nothing isn’t in wide release, it’s worth searching out a theater where it’s playing. It definitely is something!