Very few people have the gumption to adapt William Shakespeare without at least modernizing it to a full-fledged level (e.g. Ten Things I Hate About You, O, Get Over It, Deliver Us From Eva, etc.). Admittedly, most of these modernizations are of Taming of the Shrew and tend to be fairly terrible, but still, at least with the cushion of calling it an "adaptation," the writer/director doesn't have to feel that remorseful about fucking it up a bit. Joss Whedon, however, handles the intimidating linguistic world of Shakespeare with dexterity and ease. Boldly putting the material into a slightly more modern (though not noticeably so--apart from the occasional iPod) context, Whedon proves that Shakespeare, in spite of his Elizabethan dialect, is more resonant than ever.
As one of Shakespeare's most well-received comedies, Much Ado About Nothing possesses--like any great comedy--a fair amount of tragedy, misunderstanding and stratagems involving disguises. The primary love story between Benedick (Alexis Denisof) and Beatrice (Amy Acker) is based upon a battle of wits expressed through extreme hatred. But then, isn't most profound love also based on an intense hatred? The announcement of Don Pedro's (Reed Diamond) return to Messina after winning a successful battle brings joy to the house of Leonato (Clark Gregg), the governor of the town. Offering to host Don Pedro and his fellow soldiers, Benedick and Claudio (Fran Kranz), the house of Leonato is abuzz with excitement for their arrival--save, of course, for Beatrice, who has had a longstanding rivalry, or "merry war," as Leonato calls it, with Benedick. Hero (Jillian Morgese), the only daughter of Leonato, immediately captivates the attentions of Claudio upon his arrival. Too shy to woo (a word that so rarely has use in the twenty-first century), Don Pedro offers to do so on Claudio's behalf at the masked celebration (because a Shakespeare play is not a Shakespeare play without masks).
The origination of Whedon's unlikely decision to make a film based on the work of Shakespeare stemmed from the weekly readings of the bard's plays he would have at his Santa Monica home. Among the group of people invited to these intellectual get-togethers was Acker, who stated of Whedon's evolution of the idea to adapt the play into a movie, "We had talked about doing something to share these readings; he's always said, 'Wouldn't it be fun if we could film these somehow?'" Thus, the modern update of Much Ado About Nothing was born. Acker, who has appeared in such Whedon projects as Angel, Dollhouse and The Cabin in the Woods, was an instant go-to for the role of Beatrice. The dynamic between her and co-star Denisof was already long ago established when she auditioned with him to read a scene from A Midsummer Night's Dream. Their chemistry and familiarity with one another is, resultantly, easy to see onscreen.
As for the villain of the story, Don John (Sean Maher), the bastard brother of Don Pedro, well, he's just as depraved as any Buffy vampire. Using the once powerful tactic of calling a woman's "virtue" (read: virginity) into question, Don John crafts a careful illusion that leads Claudio to believe Hero is cheating on him with another man. Though, of course, the rage and drama that ensues is a natural part of Act IV of any comedic Shakespeare play, Act V proves that, to quote another of Shakespeare's titles, "All's well that ends well." And, now that Whedon has this extremely specific genre in his wheelhouse, one might imagine that there really isn't anything he can't handle. I'm just hoping he isn't so emboldened by the success as to combine his own ideas with those of Shakespeare's (à la Pride and Prejudice and Zombies). After all, Shakespeare's work is essentially impossible to improve upon.