Post Postmod Love in Much Ado

by Will Allen
In an age of barbaric irony, Joss Whedon goes countercultural and strikes a blow for sincerity.

Benedick: And I pray thee now, tell me, for which of my bad parts didst thou first fall in love with me?
Beatrice: For them all together, which maintain’d so politic a state of evil that they will not admit any good part to intermingle with them. But for which of my good parts did you first suffer love for me?
Benedick: Suffer love! A good epithet! I do suffer love indeed, for I love thee against my will.

Much Ado About Nothing, Act V, Scene II

Joss Whedon’s depiction of this most playful Shakespearean comedy is a sheer delight. It is also a rebuke, a surprise, and a challenge, in that order.

First the rebuke. Filmed in twelve days at Whedon’s California mansion, this film flatly rebuts the conviction (on eye-popping display in this summer’s The Great Gatsby, Man of Steel, The Lone Ranger, and Pacific Rim, among others) that a film can be improved simply by adding more: more thundering explosions, more cranium-cracking sound effects, more cataclysmic bloodshed — and, often, more footage. (For a detailed critique of this trend, see Christopher Orr’s brutally funny takedown of The Lone Ranger at The Atlantic.) While hardly trifling at 109 minutes, Much Ado barely moves the scale alongside today’s swollen blockbusters: Gatsby, 143 minutes; Man of Steel, 143 minutes; The Lone Ranger, 149 minutes.

More significantly, Whedon, who recently directed the 143-minute The Avengers, adjusts his focus here from mega- to human-scale, gently teasing out details in Shakespeare’s story that, when highlighted, bring the whole to eminently enjoyable life. Part of this effort consists of finding unobtrusive ways to insert modern trappings into the 405-year-old script: Benedick jogs up and down stairs while delivering his soliloquy on bachelorhood; Don Pedro and his pals listen to Claudio’s iPod and take swigs from a pocket flask; and Dogberry, the constable of the watch, demonstrates his oafishness by locking his keys in his Crown Vic.

Then, too, the quiet elegance of Jay Hunter’s black-and-white cinematography harks back to an era of more human-scale movie adventures. In a few close, soft-lit shots, the film establishes an evening garden party more enchanting by far than those in Baz Luhrmann’s Gatsby — those garish, ten-kiloton throw-downs with their CGI fireworks, fantastic costumes, and blistering Auto-tuned soundtrack produced by the current king of faux-intellectual boors, rapper Jay-Z. By contrast, Leonato’s shindig is set to the music of relaxed conversation and one of the play’s original ballads, delivered in a sultry croon by Maurissa Tancharoen (the director’s sister-in-law, accompanied by her husband Jed Whedon in a brief cameo on the piano).

Director and cast take the same small-is-beautiful approach to the text itself. Vocal delivery is vital to the credibility of any Shakespeare production, but perhaps especially this one: The major characters of Much Ado undergo rapid, even abrupt personality changes, which are difficult to portray believably without nuances in emotion and intonation.

Fortunately, the unrelievedly fine cast embraces these character transformations as pivots of the plot, rather than downplaying or caricaturing them. Amy Acker delivers Beatrice’s complicated retorts in a devastatingly casual manner, while betraying her character’s hunger for the love that her cultured wit permits her only to condemn. Alexis Denisof as Benedick is blithe and self-consciously pompous, a manner that perfectly supports his conversion from cynic to star-crossed admirer of Beatrice. Claudio undergoes the most numerous transformations (from love-stricken to jealous to blissful to scandalized, and so on); he is played by Fran Kranz as naïve and a little goofy, yet possessed of sufficient dignity to deliver the play’s most moving lines in his courtship of Hero (the lovely and demure Jillian Morgese). Reed Diamond dispenses genial and slyly funny advice in the role of Don Pedro, and Clark Gregg (Agent Coulson in The Avengers and its prequels) has gleeful fun as Leonato, the venerable host of the whole affair. Sean Maher (an alum of Whedon’s ill-fated series Firefly and the movie that followed it, Serenity) is convincingly malevolent as Don John, the scheming half-brother of Don Pedro. And Nathan Fillion (who also starred in Firefly and Serenity) steals his every scene as Dogberry, a Bidenesque constable who runs what some libertarians might consider the platonic ideal of a police force: puny, comically inept, terrified of interfering with private citizens, yet at least occasionally capable of enforcing basic order.

Thus updated, this Much Ado allows the (mostly) faithfully rendered text to speak to today’s audiences, and therein lies the surprise. Whedon’s Messina seems every bit as much an idealized vision of our own time and place as Shakespeare’s Messina was an idealized vision of his England — even more so. People generally did not then and do not now speak in courtly phrases, gliding imperceptibly into and out of iambic pentameter. But people did then at least nominally believe that romance — and its ultimate end, marriage — must be approached with awe, humility, and courage.

Such sentiments are entirely absent from the hookup culture that passes for young love in the urban West, which makes their appearance in a strikingly modern film all the more surprising — and refreshing. “I fixated on this notion that our ideas of romantic love are created for us by the society around us,” Whedon explained. “Escape from that is grown-up love, is marriage, is mature love.”

In truth, and although it is as far from a polemic as imaginable, Much Ado resoundingly indicts the norm of sex without consequences, exposing it as a cheap fraud and a license for barbaric selfishness. At first, Benedick and Beatrice — who had their own hookup in a prologue, one of the film’s few embellishments — think themselves the more mature pair. Viewing the besotted Hero and Claudio from afar, they dismiss the younger couple’s infatuation with a wink and a smirk. Eschewing love, they are the swinging life of Leonato’s party. But theirs is a brittle wit, a self-regarding cleverness that shields its possessors against the risks of trust and true affection. Beatrice, we learn, was deeply wounded by her casual assignation with Benedick, and by his easy departure thereafter. She conceals her grief and loneliness by making light of everyone who crosses her path. In characterizing Beatrice, Hero also reveals her as a postmodern ironist, so besotted with knowingness that she can neither love nor hate:

Disdain and scorn ride sparkling in her eyes,
Misprizing what they look on, and her wit
Values itself so highly that to her
All matter else seems weak. She cannot love
Nor take no shape nor project of affection
She is so self-endeared.

Unfortunately, while narcissism may detach us from civilization’s pleasures, it does not really shield us from its perils. Don John, a decidedly unironic jerk who quite simply despises his half-brother (“I am a plain-dealing villain,” he muses), needs only to plant the slightest evidence of infidelity among the houseguests to turn their fey, fragile spirits to dark suspicion and recrimination. Outside the broken shell of irony, the merry band of banterers experiences the full brunt of tragedy.

In response, the worldly-wise Beatrice and Benedick grasp, clumsily at first, for the ideals that they had previously scorned — she by remaining obstreperously loyal to her disgraced cousin, he by pledging on his honor to right the wrong and rashly challenging his friend to a duel. Their actions are foolish, dangerous, and still in part self-interested. They are also the first faltering steps toward real generosity, steps that point toward still further unwitty and unironic acts — like repentance, redemption, and even holy matrimony. All of its glorious kidding aside, Much Ado About Nothing issues a serious challenge to its heroes and to its viewers — to eschew the cool, selfish, and ultimately barbaric detachment with which we are taught to approach our relationships with one another, and instead to open ourselves to the joys and sorrows of a sincere, loving life in full.

— Will Allen is an editorial intern at National Review.