“Much Ado About Nothing” opens Friday at Sundance Cinemas. PG-13, 1:49, 4 stars out of 4.
Joss Whedon threw a party and a Shakespeare movie broke out.
The writer-director behind “Buffy, The Vampire Slayer” and “The Avengers” is known for throwing parties at his Los Angeles home where the guests stage plays by the Bard over wine and hors d’oeuvres. On a break between shooting and editing “The Avengers,” Whedon decided to take the next logical step and film a movie.
But this is no for-fans-only curio meant just for the Whedonverse. Whedon’s effervescent adaptation of “Much Ado About Nothing” is utterly delightful, brimming with good humor and romance and a fair bit of wine. And while you can sense the easy camaraderie and chemistry among the cast, many of whom are friends who have worked with Whedon before, the film doesn’t coast on its homey goodwill. It’s actually a very smart and disciplined adaptation of Shakespeare’s play.
For example, Whedon adds a wordless prologue to Shakespeare’s story featuring the uncomfortable aftermath to a one-night stand between Benedick (Alexis Denisof) and Beatrice (Amy Acker). The tension mmediately and cleverly explains both their visible animosity towards each other (Benedick certainly earns his name’s last syllable), and the tender feelings lurking beneath their barbs.
In the film, Benedick has arrived with the prince, Don Pedro (Reed Diamond of “Homicide”) to the home of Beatrice’s uncle, Leonato (Clark Gregg of “The Avengers.”) Tired of war, the men are looking for wine, women and song, if not necessarily in that order. (“We are the only love-gods,” Pedro purrs.) While Benedick and Beatrice spar, Claudio (Fran Kranz) is making goo-goo eyes at young Hero (Jillian Morgese).
Because apparently nobody can fall in love in this play without being tricked into doing so, much hijinks ensue, involving eavesdropping, masks and mistaken identities. As Benedick and Beatrice are tricked into revealing their true feelings for each other, Claudio and Hero find their love tested by the malevolent deceptions of the prince’s illegitimate brother, Don John (Sean Maher of “Firefly.”) But, to quote another play, all’s well that end’s well.
The action is all set in modern times, which doesn’t always square with some of the outdated attitudes towards women in the play, such as the “shaming” of Hero that Don John engineers. Leonato’s home is Whedon’s actual home, which leads to some great visual gags, such as Benedick and Claudio musing dreamy-eyed about love while sitting on the tiny beds in Whedon’s daughters’ bedroom.
Acker and Denisof, who played doomed lovers on Whedon’s “Angel,” have wonderful comic and romantic chemistry; Morgese and Kranz less so, though Shakespeare didn’t give Hero and Claudio much to do other than be yanked together and apart by the plotting of others. Whedon revels in comic stagings, with Beatrice hiding under the breakfast nook to eavesdrop, or Benedick puffing himself up like a peacock when he thinks Beatrice has hidden feelings for him.
The comedy hits high gear when Nathan Fillion (“Firefly,” also currently on “Castle”) fills the screen as the incompetent constable Dogberry. With his huge frame and holstered gun, Fillion plays Dogberry hilariously as a hard-nosed TV cop who has no clue how far behind the curve he really is.
Shot in gorgeous black-and-white, “Much Ado About Nothing” is a fun and fluid production that shows all you need to do Shakespeare right is some talented actors, the Bard’s own words, and a director who knows what to do with them all. And some wine helps, too.