I found myself watching some Dollhouse and Much Ado About Nothing recently. Though I’ve never been a fan of Joss Whedon, I always leave open the possibility that I’m wrong. After all, much like Star Wars, that many otherwise intelligent fans can’t all be wrong, can they? Plus, my housemates were watching Dollhouse. Enthusiasm can be infectious.
Sure enough, after bits from two episodes of Dollhouse and all 110 minutes of Much Ado About Nothing, my opinion has changed.
I still don’t like Joss Whedon; the exact reason why I dislike his work, however, has evolved. I used to think that I disliked his shows and movies because of the way he writes dialogue. Now I get the impression that it’s the performances he coaxes out of his actors that rub me the wrong way.
It became apparent to me while watching Much Ado About Nothing that there still was a Whedon-ness to the dialogue, even though his actors read straight Shakespearean prose. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that I was noticing or reacting to a certain aspect of the line deliveries, instead of the lines themselves. The smarmy tone, the neurotic cadence and the comedic timing – this wasn’t Whedon the writer, but Whedon the director’s greasy handprints.
It was this way of speaking rather than the particular speech that turned me off of Whedon’s oeuvre; the way that almost all of his characters talk as if they’re permanently on Reddit. Going back to Dollhouse, it was Olivia Williams’ character that I most connected with, and she gave the most naturalistic, low-key performance of the ensemble.
The trouble with talking about comedy is how intensely subjective it really is. A lot of people – I say this with no disrespect – like the aggressively stylized quips coming out of Whedon’s characters. To me, the comedic elements are so offputting that I cannot connect or invest in the dramatic.
I can respect Whedon’s chops as a storyteller, and his instinct to use humor as a way of making his characters more likable is certainly valid, but nothing he’s ever made appealed to me. Watching Dollhouse and Much Ado About Nothing hasn’t changed this belief; it has just refined it. I did, however, come away from the show and the movie with more respect for Whedon as a director. What I found disagreeable was almost certainly intentional, and the persistence and consistency of Whedon’s style in even a 200-million dollar blockbuster demonstrates some real directorial control.