Magazine | August 5, 2013, Issue

The Bard in SoCal

Amy Acker as Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing (Lionsgate)
A review of Much Ado About Nothing

Discussions of movies like Joss Whedon’s new version of Much Ado About Nothing — filmed in his own well-appointed California home, remarkably enough, during a lull in the making of the ever-so-slightly-more-expensive film The Avengers — often revolve around how successfully Shakespeare can be adapted to non-Elizabethan periods of history, contemporary or otherwise.

But that framing misleads a bit. If the question is whether the Bard’s plays can be successfully picked up and dropped intact into the New York of 1950 or the America of 2013, the answer is mostly no, and the would-be adapter is usually better off keeping the story but writing his own lines — à la West Side Story or even 10 Things I Hate about You. The trick to pulling off a non-16th-century Shakespeare, rather, is to eschew historical exactitude and create a setting that can partake of both the original and some other, half-invented time and place.

Or at least that’s been true of recent Shakespeare screen adaptations. The best of them have created settings that feel suitably unmoored from actual recorded history: the savage “Verona Beach” of Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, part modern Rio and part Renaissance Italy; the fascism-infused alt-1930s of the Ian McKellen Richard III; the ancient-modern hybrids that worked for Julie Taymor in Titus and for Ralph Fiennes in his recent Coriolanus. The disappointments have let their settings distract, in their uneasy fit with the material, from the matter of the story: The version of Hamlet that cast Ethan Hawke as a prince of corporate America, and Denmark’s succession as a boardroom struggle, was a notable example of what such failure looks like.

Whedon’s Much Ado, which is drenched in SoCal ambience — a wedding spot overlooks a golf course, couples bicker in a custom kitchen and flirt beside a glassy swimming pool — falls somewhere in between: It’s an almost-success whose quasi-contemporary location sometimes fits the play but sometimes feels a little too contemporary.

There are aspects of the setting that work brilliantly with the material. The drunken weekend party, where everyone is constantly pouring someone else a drink, is ideally suited to Shakespeare’s comedic mix of passion, folly, misinterpretation, and reconciliation. The military and political background to the story doesn’t quite work with the Southern California backdrop, but it’s not actually that relevant to the plot, so it’s easy to set aside those incongruities. And some of the scenes that Whedon stages — particularly an extended masked-party scene, with acrobats swinging from the darkened trees — hit the precise “this could be any era’s revels” sweet spot that the film is aiming for.

#page#But there’s also a little too much that’s on-the-nose contemporary in the way Whedon tells the story. The film opens with a shot of Beatrice (Amy Acker) and Benedick (Alex Denisof) waking up in bed together, in a brief fling that’s supposed to be a prelude to their subsequent warlike courtship, and this choice and others locate the story a bit too firmly in the post-sexual-revolution present. While a sexy, earthy vibe is entirely appropriate to Shakespeare’s material, a world of relatively casual sex simply doesn’t fit with the play’s crucial, unalterable plot twist, in which not merely chastity but actual virginity is treated as something worth prizing, worth disowning someone over, and even worth dying for.

The maidenhood issue is not a small incongruity, and at times it threatens to undo the impressive work of Whedon’s cast — highlighted by Acker’s brilliant embodiment of Beatrice (she rather overshadows Denisof’s Benedick), Clark Gregg as her uncle, Sean Maher as the sinister Don John, and Nathan Fillion’s put-upon, recessive, and entirely hilarious Dogberry. The actors are mostly Whedon’s favorites from other projects (Acker from television’s Angel, Gregg from The Avengers), and they combine the necessary candlepower with an effective “where have I seen him?” obscurity. (Only Fillion — the hero of the canceled Firefly, and now the star of the crime show Castle — is anything close to a real celebrity, though after this performance I would happily sign a petition to get Acker more A-list work.)

What ultimately saves their efforts from the reverse-anachronism problem is the fact that Whedon chose to shoot in black and white. That choice balances the post-1960s bed-hopping vibe with a screwball 1930s quality, and effectively decontemporizes the movie just enough to make it entertain more than it distracts.

A screwball quality, and a hint of noir as well. Part of the thrill of Much Ado About Nothing, as with Shakespeare’s later romances, comes from the way it employs the plot devices of his tragedies — particularly Romeo and Juliet and Othello — but turns them, after a period of turmoil, to happy, resurrective ends. It’s to Whedon’s great credit that his sundrenched black-and-white, with its echoes of Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles, helps bring that element of darkness out — even if, as always in such adaptations, the ultimate credit goes to the genius who included it in the first place.

In This Issue


Politics & Policy

Sensitive SEALs

Americans know there’s something special about the SEALs. Arguably the most skilled and motivated military unit ever created trains to be ready for any possible challenge on land, at sea, or ...
Politics & Policy

Salon and Breakfast

If you were a distinguished philosopher, economist, political theorist, or literary critic arriving at Heathrow from the U.S., Australia, or New Zealand between, say, 1990 and 2010, there was a ...


Politics & Policy

The Anti-Che

Miami, Fla. — Felix Rodriguez seems fated to be linked to Che Guevara. This is not entirely just. Rodriguez loves freedom, and has worked tirelessly for it; Guevara loved tyranny, ...
Politics & Policy

An Arm and a Leg

In 1994, two eminent Boston hospitals, Massachusetts General Hospital and Brigham and Women’s Hospital, merged. Officials hailed it as a new era for integrated, high-quality care. The state’s secretary of ...

Books, Arts & Manners

Politics & Policy

Law, Naturally

Natural-law theory provides the principal philosophical justification of traditional sexual morality, opposition to abortion, and other paradigmatically conservative views in ethics. Princeton law professor Robert P. George is the most ...
Politics & Policy

The Bard in SoCal

Discussions of movies like Joss Whedon’s new version of Much Ado About Nothing — filmed in his own well-appointed California home, remarkably enough, during a lull in the making of ...


Politics & Policy


Wind Power’s Spotty Record Rupert Darwall’s excellent article “Free Markets Mean Cheaper Energy” (June 17) had a minor, but salient, error. He correctly noted that Danish electricity spot prices sometimes go ...
Politics & Policy

The Week

‐ Mike Bloomberg may want to sit down with Bob Filner and explain what ‘stop and frisk’ means. ‐ According to conventional wisdom, the Gang of Eight immigration bill went from ...

A Sinecure for Your Thoughts

In the future, I would like to see every sentence that begins “The public official declined comment” end with the following words: “and was promptly terminated under the Mandatory Comment ...
The Long View


TO: V. Jarrett FROM: Staff IN RE: Your request for upcoming state and local criminal/civil cases that might be of interest Following Monday’s status meeting, staff researchers and others spent four days searching state, local-court, ...
Politics & Policy


WEAVE OF THE DARK To conceive of the weave of the dark is to lift forward the cloth with a texture of silk, or wool, or nothing, melting into the air, where the mind is ...
Happy Warrior

Cinema ex Machina

Of my two local-ish movie theaters in New Hampshire, one has an irksome habit of always showing the film just a little larger than the screen, so that anything happening ...

Most Popular


Jussie Smollett Jokes Declared Off-Limits

The Jussie Smollett story has been declared not fit for jokes. "It's a straight-up tragedy," declares the co-creator of a Comedy Central show, South Side, set in Chicago. Bashir Salahuddin, a former Jimmy Fallon writer, says “The whole situation is unfortunate. Particularly for the city, there’s bigger ... Read More

What The 1619 Project Leaves Out

“The goal of The 1619 Project, a major initiative from The New York Times that this issue of the magazine inaugurates, is to reframe American history by considering what it would mean to regard 1619 as our nation’s birth year,” The New York Times Magazine editors declare. “Doing so requires us to place ... Read More
PC Culture

Courage Is the Cure for Political Correctness

This might come as some surprise to observers of our campus culture wars, but there was a time, not long ago, when the situation in American higher education was much worse. There a wave of vicious campus activism aimed at silencing heterodox speakers, and it was typically empowered by a comprehensive regime of ... Read More