Much Ado About Nothing

Twenty years have passed since Kenneth Branaugh’s definitive and very traditional version of Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing,” so it’s high time some other well-read merrymaker came along with a shiny new one. Joss Whedon, the TV geek-wizard behind “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Firefly” who leapt into the filmmaking big-time with last year’s “The Avengers,” proves to be just the man for the job. His adaptation of the Bard’s prototypical romantic comedy doesn’t discover any new layers of meaning or interpret the material differently from other productions — nor does it need to. It’s a sublimely jolly presentation of a delightful play.

And why wouldn’t Whedon be up to the task? All of his previous work — which also includes TV’s “Angel” and “Dollhouse,” plus the movie “Serenity” (spun off from “Firefly”), plus the wickedly clever online sensation “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog” — has shown that he’s adept with comedic ensembles, sordid subplots, awkward romances, and multi-layered wordplay. He is “to the manner born,” to borrow a phrase from another Shakespearean play. When the messenger sticks up for Benedick by describing him as “a good soldier too, lady,” and Beatrice replies, “A good soldier to a lady: but what is he to a lord?” … I confess, I couldn’t remember if that was Shakespeare or if it was Whedon’s own punnery. (It was the former.)

The cast is assembled mostly from previous Whedon productions, and the film was shot quickly and inexpensively at the gorgeous, spacious Santa Monica house Whedon shares with its designer and decorator, his wife, Kai Cole. Unsurprisingly, there’s a homey, do-it-yourself feel about the whole affair: Let’s get a bunch of friends together and put on a show! (I don’t know if shooting in black-and-white lowered the costs, but it is, unfortunately, the kind of B&W that looks cheap.) You COULD to this yourself, if your friends had this caliber of talent. (Which maybe they do! I don’t mean to denigrate your friends’ acting skills.)

Amy Acker plays the spitfire Beatrice, with Alexis Denisof as Benedick, her sparring partner and eventual true love. Her uncle, Leonato (Clark Gregg), is pleased to offer his daughter Hero’s (Jillian Morgese) hand in marriage to Claudio (Fran Kranz), but the romance is sabotaged by the “plain-dealing villain” Don John (a finely conniving Sean Maher) and his cohort, Borachio (Spencer Treat Clark). Nathan Fillion and Tom Lenk play the bumbling, malaprop-prone police officers who uncover the conspiracy, and their buffoonery is well-played.

My recollection of Branagh’s version is that its more serious scenes (after the wedding is disrupted and Hero’s reputation ruined) had some dramatic heft to them. Whedon doesn’t seem interested in pursuing that course, preferring to keep things light for the audience even when things have gotten dark for the characters. That’s a valid choice, but it does give the film an airiness that may prevent it from joining the canon of Important and Respected Shakespeare Adaptations.

Whedon retains Shakespeare’s dialogue but has moved the play to an undefined modern setting in an undefined land, so that references to princes and lords — not to mention the great emphasis placed on chastity before marriage — feel quaintly out-of-time, almost dreamlike. There, too, maybe the black-and-white helps: what we’re seeing isn’t really happening, not in any literal way.

But most impressively, Whedon and his cast overcome the primary obstacle facing all Shakespearean productions, that of making the old-timey language accessible and understandable. Some performers demonstrate greater facility than others, but they all clearly know what they’re saying, what it means, and why they’re saying it. All in all, ’tis a jolly, high-spirited affair, suitable for merry-making.

B (1 hr., 47 min.; PG-13, mild sexual innuendo and brief pot smoking -- should be PG.)

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