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Fran Kranz is one of the biggest surprises in the movie. You’re probably surprised this is him, even. That’s just the beginning.

Much Ado About Nothing is an eminently easy movie to love. No one should be surprised that Joss Whedon decided to tackle Shakespeare in his spare-time. I would have been shocked and disbelieving if anyone tried to tell me that Whedon isn’t one of Shakespeare’s biggest fans in the whole wide world. Whedon, as I’m fond of saying, writes like Shakespeare. Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying that Whedon is as good as the Bard (though Tarantino, who also writes like Shakespeare, may be). I’m just saying there are correlations. Stuff like turn of phrase, clever and snappy dialogue, five-act structures, pop culture slyness, and ribald humor are all hallmarks of Whedon’s work. So who better to do a nuanced, clever, and often ironic production of one of Shakespeare’s funniest plays?

Nobody. There’s nobody better. So it’s okay if you expect a lot here. Shakespeare fans should definitely love this movie, but it’s a real treat for Whedon fans as it features many of his regulars doing the kind of work for which you will find yourself half-angrily wondering why these people never broke through into the bigger world of acting fame and fortune. It also has little in-jokes for people who watched his TV shows. Nothing too obtrusive or self-indulgent, but truly sly (can’t think of a better word for it) stuff that is so tiny that I may be imagining it.

So it’s great, a slam dunk, for the Shakespeare crowd and the Whedon crowd. But what about everybody else? Everybody else may not like the movie for being black and white, or for using Shakespeare’s lines in a contemporary setting, and so on. Everybody else is missing out if they can’t wrap their heads around that, though. It’s just window dressing. This is one of the most accessible “off the page” Shakespeare films ever made. The script is so witty, so full of wonderful and funny stage direction, that it would be pretty difficult to miss that wit or fail to see what’s happening through the sometimes (in some plays) barrier to entry that is Shakespearean language. I respect that some people have a hard time with that stuff, but I hope they give Much Ado About Nothing a chance because it seriously transcends that potential hurdle and rises to be unequivocally one of the funniest movies of the year, and so good-natured and fun that you smile even when you don’t laugh out loud.

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Two of Whedon’s biggest “what ever happened to…” actors who really fucking show up in this movie.

If you know the play, excuse my summarizing the plot a bit.

Leonato (Clark Gregg) is about to receive some guests, recently returned from “the wars”. They include Don Pedro (Reed Diamond), Claudio (Fran Kranz) and the witty, argumentative Benedick (Alexis Denisof). They also bring Don John (Sean Maher), who is Pedro’s brother and a bit of a traitor/pain in the ass. John’s also got two retainers. No one wants him or them around, but they’re along anyway.

Leonato has a daughter, Hero (Jillian Morgese) and a niece, Beatrice (Amy Acker) who has a similar disposition to Benedick. Unlike in the play (as far as I remember, anyway), the film shows us that Beatrice and Benedick’s long standing war of wills and wits is based on a dalliance that ended presumably with Benedick running off to do his soldiering. Since then, neither has married and both are cynical about the entire enterprise of love and marriage.

As Hero and Claudio fall in instantaneous, Shakespearean love, everybody except John decides now would be a good time to trick Benedick and Beatrice into falling in love. Their dispositions make them perfect for each other, and both actors play it up as the kind of bickering, stubborn chemistry that lights up the screen. They are both so fucking good.

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All of these guys take to the patter and turn of this dialogue like they were born to do it.

Not to miss an opportunity to fuck with his brother’s fun, Don John dispatches his own friends Borachio (Spencer Treat Clark) and Conrade (Riki Lindhome) to mess it all up. Meanwhile, pretty much everybody else in the household is busy making sure that Beatrice and Benedick overhear gossip about their secret love for each other. As if it’s what they’ve been wanting to hear all along, this news really gets them both going and the results are touching and hilarious.

It’s tough to convince an audience to take this sort of thing seriously, and the movie doesn’t really ask you to. It’s all treated as sudden, ridiculous, and fun (which feels right). Yet, all of the mains in the movie are able to make it more than that. Kranz is especially electrifying, if I can use that word with a straight face, when things start to go wrong for Claudio. But Denisof and Acker do every little thing they can to make this stuff feel as real as it can. There’s vulnerability underneath the caustic wit, there’s yearning underneath the cynicism. That’s good stuff, and the kind of good stuff you could never get reading this in an English course.

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Everybody knows how fun Gregg is, but he gets the chance to be both soothing and menacing in this one.

Borachio and John scheme together to convince Claudio that Hero is unfaithful and not a virgin. Though I bet it’s not in the play either, Whedon and Clark create a Borachio who also has the hots for Hero and therefore feels something both when she’s promised to Claudio and when she fakes her death in the aftermath of her humiliation. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The scheme is Borachio’s but John is happy to send it home. He bangs one of Leonato’s servants in Hero’s window, while she wears Hero’s dress, and John makes sure that Claudio and Pedro see it.

I’ve already mentioned Kranz’s surprising weight in the movie. He’s the same funny, pensive guy you’d expect (though the nervous energy he had in Dollhouse and The Cabin in the Woods is absent here) until he gets his heart broken. Then, an explosive Kranz emerges and the movie never quite recovers its jovial tone after his scathing rejection of Hero. That’s what you call a powerful performance, by the way. It’s one that punches a hole in the movie, really, and the movie is more than happy to stay wounded and let the damage be damage.

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Firefly fans will delight.

I have this feeling that Sean Maher is probably one of the least popular of all the awesome characters Whedon has created over the years. I don’t think there are many big Simon fans out there and I don’t think the character was ever intended to have many. Maybe I’m wrong about this, but it feels true. In Much Ado About Nothing, Maher gets to play the slick, composed, and sociopathic villain that I think most people could see lurking in him somewhere in the Simon character. Maher fits Don John like a glove and if the movie is lacking in anything, it’s in his presence in the last third of the film. Like with Fran Kranz, it’s the kind of performance that makes you really aware of the potential these guys have and excited to see what they’ll do in the future as they’re both still really young. Acker and Denisof are also nothing short of amazing, but they’re both over 40 and while I also hope they get more attention if for no other reason than how good they are here, it also seems like they’re more of a known quantity.

That makes me sound a bit cynical. Shoot. Moving on.

Following the play, Whedon has to negotiate a sort of anti-dramatic turn around where Borachio and Conrade get caught, John runs away, and the duel that Beatrice has convinced Benedick to fight against Claudio is waved away. This is Shakespeare for you, though. And it’s a comedy so everything  has to work out in the end, even the buffoonish police (Nathan Fillion and Tom Lenk, who are a riot together) get to chalk up a win. Apparently, Whedon was committed to staying very true to the play as a whole. His changes are mostly out of irony (Claudio’s Ethiope line is a great quick joke) or pure anarchic fun (changing Conrade’s sex and having everybody refer to her as a he or a man), or to add nuance and depth to the characters. I don’t think he can help himself and thanks to the lack of stage direction in Shakespeare’s plays as written, there’s plenty of room to have fun with the material.

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Dogberry is just the kind of name you want to have.

It’s worth mentioning that Much Ado About Nothing was a really low budget, DIY kind of movie. It was shot at Whedon’s house, during the production of The Avengers and in total secret. I hope he gets to do more of these. Now that he’s risen to the forefront of filmmaking success, it’s a good sign of the guy we know and love that he has work like Much Ado About Nothing in him. And really, seeing a movie he made with his friends is sort of like seeing a movie a friend made, starring your own friends. All of these people have a special connection to the breed of literary nerd that Whedon so captivates. My foot is only ever half in that door, but it’s enough to feel like this is a special sort of movie.

Don’t overlook it.

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