The world around us is an unpredictable place. The world of movies, not so much.
If you're watching a James Bond flick, you can bank on the fact that Bond will a) kill, b) have sex, c) order a mixed drink and d) live to tell the tale. If you're watching a sci-fi flick with big alien beasties, you can bet the nearest city is almost surely toast. And if you settle in to watch a romcom, you know that if two people loathe each other at the beginning of the thing, they'll surely be madly in love by the end.
Thanks for that, William Shakespeare.
Meet (again) Beatrice and Benedick, the Western world's original romcom couple. In Joss Whedon's modern retelling of the classic Shakespeare comedy Much Ado About Nothing, we see that they had a bit of a tryst once upon a time, but clearly love's labor was lost on them. Now they can't stand the sight of each other. Beatrice thinks Benedick a jolly, self-important jerk. Benedick sees Beatrice as a sharp-tongued shrew. And their encounters are always veritable tempests as they attack like linguistically gifted Japanese fighting fish.
"There is a kind of merry war betwixt Signior Benedick and her," Beatrice's uncle Leonato says, by way of winking apology. "They never meet but there's a skirmish of wit between them."
In other words, they're perfect for each other. And it's not long before Leonato and a handful of other coconspirators (the handsome count Claudio, the prince Don Pedro, and Leonato's comely daughter Hero) decide to get the two of them together. Never mind that both say they'll never marry! They'll surely change their tune. Claudio's especially convinced of it. After all, he himself fell unexpectedly for Hero, and so he knows that love is, measure for measure, the best thing ever.
But the course of love never runs smooth. Before Beatrice and Benedick can share the sincere lip-lock of love, the good guys must undo the scheming schemes of Don Pedro's evil brother, Don John, who wants to make a mess out of everything. All's well that ends well, of course, but that won't stop Don John from doing his best to make sure this doesn't end well at all.
These Shakespearian Italians are a passionate lot. And that means they overreact at times. But most of the folk in Much Ado About Nothing actually have reasonably good intentions:
Turns out, Benedick and Beatrice do love each other, and that's nice. (We won't let the fact that Beatrice wants Benedick to kill Claudio to prove his love ruin our positive-content moment; we'll deal with that a little later.) Claudio and Hero also are deeply in love. And when Claudio thinks he killed Hero by shaming her at the altar, he feels … well, he feels really bad about it.
(That said, you're not going to find anyone here you can point to and say, "Now that's a guy or gal I'd like to be like!" That's not the way Shakespeare rolled. Not in this play, anyway.)
When Much Ado was written, it was pretty much assumed that everyone was at least nominally Christian, and that most folks went to church at least occasionally and stuff like that. People were less self-conscious about faith, for sure, so throughout the story, you'll hear casual biblical references and invocations of God.
Example: When Leonato tells Beatrice that he'd really like to see her get hitched one of these days, Beatrice says, "Not till God make men of some other metal than earth."
Example: Margaret (the maid) tells a suitor that she's full of flaws, including that, "I say my prayers aloud." Her suitor responds, "I love you the better; the hearers may cry 'Amen.'"
Example: When a detective of some sort (Dogberry) grills two bad 'uns, he asks them if they serve God. When one answers, "Yea, sir, we hope," Dogberry tells the record keeper to "Write down, that they hope they serve God: and write God first; for God defend but God should go before such villains!"
There are loads of other such statements—again, more reflective of the age than any particular piety among the characters. Similarly, marriages take place before a priest, who's shown as a wise (if somewhat duplicitous) force. People also make pagan references to Cupid, and at one point refer to themselves as "love gods."
[Spoiler Warning] At the risk of getting a little too religiously geeky, I will point out one more interesting spiritual allusion: Hero is accused of infidelity, and under the stress of those accusations faints dead away. Later, Claudio is told that she did die (to make him feel bad) and is persuaded to marry one of Hero's relatives to make up for unfairly killing such a nice girl. In a few days' time he stands at the altar with an unknown, veiled woman and confirms his commitment to her, sight unseen. The woman takes off the veil and reveals herself to be Hero. Claudio is thrilled. They marry. Everything's great. …
But it's interesting that Shakespeare (and Whedon, in turn) makes a point of saying that Hero "died defiled, but as I do live, and as surely as I live, I am a maid [virgin]." So in a way, Hero "died" for a sin that was not hers and was "resurrected"—those sins wiped away. Much as Christians are in the process of dying to our own sins, and a little like Jesus died for them.
I'm sure loads of English professors have much more to say about this little interlude, but I'll just leave it there.
The Bard was not above lobbing ribald sexual barbs into his scenes. The titular word nothing might, in fact, be itself titillating wordplay, given that 17th-century playgoers associated the word with female genitalia (in that there's "nothing" between the legs), and the pun repeatedly is used in dialogue. Most of those intended references will go unnoticed by modern audiences, in some ways making a viewing now cleaner than Shakespeare intended.
But other base references still "work" today. When Beatrice complains that she's all stuffed up because of a head cold, Margaret says, "A maid, and stuffed!" with a suggestive smirk. Moreover, the tale's central tension is pinned to Hero's (in)fidelity. "She knows the heat of the luxurious bed!" Claudio fumes. And Don John refers to her as "every man's Hero."
In Shakespeare's day, little physical affection would be seen on stage, of course (a good thing, since women's roles were typically played by boys). Whedon feels the weight of no such restrictions in his 21st-century movie, and so we see a number of frankly sexual interludes: In flashback, we see Beatrice and Benedick in bed together, sensually kissing and touching. Don John and Conrade (a woman here) lie together, he between her legs as he unbuttons her dress and touches her bra-covered breast. He also fondles her underneath a cover, prompting her to moan. Dressed as Hero, Margaret participates in sex, showing the camera their sexual movements.
Beatrice fends off the advances of a suitor. Couples kiss and cuddle. A Cirque du Soleil-like trapeze performance comes off as sensual. We see undergarments and slips and such.
Beatrice demands that Benedick kill Claudio for shaming her cousin—telling him that if she were a man she'd do it herself. "I'd eat his heart in the marketplace," she memorably tells him. After a time, Benedick says he will. He shows Claudio his holstered gun, slaps the guy and essentially challenges him to a duel (which never materializes).
When Hero faints, her father Leonato prays that she dies for shaming the family so. And when she revives, Leonato says he'd kill her himself "if thy spirits were stronger than thy shames."
Crude or Profane Language
Interjections of God's name sometimes veer from the sincere into more modern "OMG" territory. "A‑‑" is used seven or eight times as part of a running gag, and "b‑‑tard" is spit out twice.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Conrade and Borachio share what appears to be a marijuana joint. Many characters drink constantly, downing wine and whiskey, martinis and other mixed beverages. Sometimes they stagger around, obviously under the influence. Leonato, after a long night of partying, falls asleep during a conversation.
Other Negative Elements
The word nothing is actually a triple entendre. In addition to its Elizabethan relationship to female body parts, it was also a homophone with noting, which means spying or eavesdropping. No surprise, then, that the entire play is predicated on subterfuge, disguises and sneaking around. Almost everyone tries to mislead someone; even the priest suggests the family hide Hero's alive-ness in order to make Claudio feel really, really bad about killing her. And Beatrice and Benedick are drawn together through a series of highly manipulative conversations meant to be overheard. Don John's framing of Hero is particularly underhanded.
Claudio lets loose a racial slur.
For all of Shakespeare's obvious gifts with language and insights into human character, many of his plots are just plain wild. Does it strike you as improbable that Admiral Marcus could build a big ol' secret starship in Star Trek Into Darkness? Or that Tony Stark would've waited so long to unleash all his many, many fighting suits in Iron Man 3? Well, those plot points look positively plausible compared to some of the whoppers Shakespeare would have us swallow in his work. Indeed, his comedies can make Gilligan's Island reruns look restrained.
Joss Whedon's take on Shakespeare's wackiness is fun, for what it is. It's creative and clever and literally a literary work. "Whedon has created a Shakespeare adaptation that will please just about everyone," writes Christopher Schobert for Indiewire. But it's with that last statement that we must quibble just a little. For one thing, there's the archaically lyrical language—musical once you get used to it, but a little dense until you do. (Someone I saw the film with remarked to me that Whedon should've rewritten the whole thing in "English." Another is the play's inherent surreality. Some will find it all a bit too absurd and flyaway. And then there's the content concerns—endemic to Shakespeare's original work and enhanced by the salacious stuff Whedon slathers on top.
A postscript: Joss Whedon reportedly filmed Much Ado About Nothing during a weeklong break from his work on The Avengers. (Clark Gregg, who plays S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Phil Coulson, steps in as Leonato here.) Whedon (who may be best known for his creative vision for the television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer) apparently concocted the whole thing at his house … exactly what you'd expect from a guy who, when he has a get-together, is said to have his friends read scenes from the Bard after dinner.