I caught Joss Whedon’s William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing on a Wednesday morning, tired and hungover, at SXSW. There was a line, a beast of a line, extending from the cool shady entrance to the Long Center and past the parking structure, all the way to the busy street and back, like some cruel fucking ouroboros. I circled twice, parked and made my way to the doors. Not because I thought I could talk my way to the front of the line (I’m charming, but I’m not that charming), but because there was a concession stand up there, somewhere, somewhere in the shade provided by the weird concrete halo suspended around the building. And that concession stand would have coffee, and pretzels, and cream cheese. And beer, because a little hair-of-the-dog will cure what ails you. And whiskey, because sometimes…sometimes that dog is a mean dog.
The whiskey I put down right there, unabashedly, while the mustachioed concessioneer gave me a knowing nod. “I have been where you are,” said his nod, “and I have known your pain.” And so I tipped him well, because I know mustache wax is expensive, and made my way back to the end of the line, beer and coffee and pretzel and cheese and don’t you judge me in hand. And as I made my way back through that labyrinthine mass of flesh and plastic badges, past a group of silver-haired women all floral-print blouses and fanny-packs who had the foresight to bring camping chairs and Mimosas, I began to wonder if it was worth this.
I stood in the dry still heat, sweating and shivering, eating my cold pretzel and alternating sips of too hot coffee and lukewarm beer, trying to quell the pounding in my head, still the grumbling in my belly, stop my eyes from watering, stop my hands from shaking, and wondered if it was worth this. I should be in bed (or couch, as it were), nursing this hangover, watching cartoons. I should be eating pigloads of bacon and cooploads of eggs. No movie is worth this. Certainly no movie based on a play I’ve seen a dozen times, never mind one that had already been adapted perfectly in Kenneth Branagh’s 1993 version. And definitely not one shot at some guy’s house on a long weekend. There is no way it’s worth this.
Joss Whedon has done a terrific job with this film, and the manic, wine-fueled energy on display is infectious. Everybody, from Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof as Beatrice and Benedick, smoldering intensity one minute and Vaudevillian slapstick the next (Acker’s big pratfall had me in tears from laughing), to Reed Diamond and his warm conspiratorial smile, is having a great time*. Special note should be made of Riki Lindhome, in the gender-swapped role of Conrade, who takes the movie and runs away with it in a steamy scene with Sean Maher’s mustache-twirlingly evil Don John the Bastard.
Much Ado About Nothing is a difficult play to pull off because of one vicious scene. Spoilers for a 400 year old play, I guess, but when Claudio (here played by Fran Kranz, and we’ll get back to him) lashes out at Hero (newcomer Jillian Morgese) on their wedding day, calling her fidelity and virtue into question, it is one of the most damning and cruel acts in all of Shakespeare (kind of not counting the entirety of Titus Andronicus which…wow). He ruins this poor girl, and it kicks us in the stomach when he does.
Morgese brings a lot of life into her character (who is purposefully underwritten, meant to be representative of an idea of purity and goodness more than an actual person so that the audience can project virtue onto her; it’s no accident her name is Hero), especially during this pivotal scene as confusion and shock give way to waves of pain and she falls apart on screen. It is the ruination of all that is good, especially coming off of the heels of that joyful party scene. And it happens halfway through the piece.
The great difficulty that performances of Much Ado About Nothing face is in being able to surpass this moment. We have to forgive Claudio for doing this terrible thing, or the play simply does not work. Joss Whedon has made it work, thanks in no small part to Fran Kranz’ giant sad eyes and twitchy insecurity, masked by youthful aristocratic haughtiness. You can see him regretting the words as he speaks them, anger and pride stopping his heart, and when Benedick later confronts him it’s the realization of what he has done that affects him more than the promise of death at the hand of his friend.
Whedon’s film is a delight. He has a masterful understanding of the material that allows him to play the big moments perfectly, which in turn allows him a degree of freedom with the small touches that breathe life into the film. You will laugh riotously when Don John steals a cupcake because it is so perfectly in character, and Whedon understands that.
He’s always understood that. Honestly, it’s a wonder that it’s taken this long for him to tackle Shakespeare.
That Much Ado About Nothing is appropriately wine-sogged certainly helps, though. Whedon’s fondness for Chardonnay is well on display here, as half-empty bottles crowd every available surface, and the wine flows freely from scene to scene. But this is by no means an affectation. Shakespeare’s works are filled with references to wine, and oftentimes the grape informs many a character’s decision.
Good Wine is a Good Familiar Creature.
One of Shakespeare’s most famous and elaborate monologues is on wine and its virtues, from Henry IV, Part II, as spoken by Sir John Falstaff. Here, Falstaff espouses the benefits of sherry (or sack**) while decrying Prince John’s perceived humorlessness.
Falstaff claims that sherry inspires wit and courage while he himself expresses neither, despite being constantly soused in sack himself.
Shakespeare would return to this use of wine as a narrative device in Othello, though more directly. As part of his plan to destroy Othello, Iago incites Cassio and Roderigo to fight. Iago convinces Cassio, who claims “very poor and unhappy brains for drinking,” to drink more than he should, under pretense of toasting Othello’s health, which puts the young lieutenant in a fighting mood (and proves Falstaff’s theory).
“Oh thou invisible spirit of wine, if thou hast no name to be known by, let us call thee devil!” says Cassio, words we’ve all spoken (if perhaps not quite so eloquently) the morning after we have found ourselves too deep in our cups. Iago retorts, “Good wine is a good familiar creature, if it be well used,” and then urges Cassio to seek Othello in his chambers and beg forgiveness. In this way, Iago sets the events in motion that will lead Othello to suspect his wife Desdemona of adultery which in turn leads to…everybody dying.
Cheerful sort, Shakespeare.
Thankfully, though this unfounded accusation of infidelity appears also in Much Ado About Nothing, it ultimately finds a happier end. Go and see for yourself this weekend, and drink along with the cast. You’ll need some cocktails, and tequila, and wine and wine and wine.
*Also Nathan Fillion makes a better Dogberry than Michael Keaton.
**Sherry and sack are bastardizations of Spanish and French words, respectively. While the term “sack” had come to be associated specifically with sherry, it actually originates from the French sec, meaning dry, and was meant to denote fortified wines that were less sweet. Sherry, on the other hand, comes from Jerez, the name of both the style of wine and the place it comes from.