Joss Whedon has brought great emotional sophistication to popular themes in mass culture (such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer), but could he do the same to the great literature of the Bard? Amanda Shubert examines the mixed results of his Much Ado About Nothing in Critics at Large.
The material is not the problem. Much Ado About Nothing is one of Shakespeare’s most loveable comedies, and it’s also completely within Whedon’s range. It may not have vampires and demons (Buffy the Vampire Slayer; Angel) or space-age cowboys and aliens (Firefly; Serenity), but it distills the qualities that make Whedon’s supernatural and extraterrestrial epics such compelling mythographies of real life experience. It’s a comedy that brings romantic happiness to the brink of disaster and back again, where erotic desire can be the source of complete wreckage as well as matrimonial union, and jealousy, hatred and rage are the shadow-presences of the profoundest love. That’s the attitude Whedon took towards high school in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, where the emotions of the teenage characters were so volatile they combusted into paranormal activity. On Angel, where the titular vampire with a soul (played by David Boreanaz) moves from the suburb of Sunnydale to Los Angeles and fights the criminal underworld of monsters as a sort of noir detective, the point is that everyone, not just Angel, has a demon lurking within – it’s the nature of being human. Whedon has a way of putting horror and science fiction movie scenarios in quotation marks while at the same time showing you the real emotion underneath them. The bad guy in the first season of Buffy is a centuries-old vampire called The Master with an apocalyptic endgame. He’s pure camp, but when a prophecy surfaces that Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) will die at The Master’s hands Whedon plays against all our expectations: Gellar channels the heartbreak and fury of a sixteen year-old girl forced to stare down her own death. The tone turns on you – suddenly you’re watching the real substance of nightmares.
|Joss Whedon's Much Ado About Nothing|
Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing evolved out of the parties Whedon used to throw for the casts of his television show Buffy the Vampire Slayer and its spin-off Angel: he got his actors together for Shakespeare readings, which he would cast and direct. To make Much Ado About Nothing, Whedon reserved his week off – the twelve days in between wrapping his horror movie Cabin in the Woods and starting production on the Marvel Comics flick Avengers – and invited his company from past projects to rehearse and film the picture, using his house and grounds as the location. (He gives the play a modern day setting.) The product is a Joss Whedon home movie – two scenes were shot during real house parties – and it has the cheerful desperation of a lot of talented people winging it while trying to hide from one another what their gut tells them: that they’re not going to pull this thing off.