Whedon's 'Much Ado'? Delightfully, Unfussily Anachronistic

Directed by: Joss Whedon; Runtime: 109 minutes
Grade: B+

Leave it to Joss Whedon to concoct something new during his vacation time. Instead of taking a presumably much-needed break after production for The Avengers, the mastermind behind several television series and big-budget films -- ones that typically appear on a modern sci-fi geek's tops list -- decided to pencil in something far smaller in scale and budget to fill the time: a pennies-to-the-dollar adaptation of a play by William Shakespeare, shot on the grounds of his Santa Monica home with little warning or fanfare. Over the course of about two weeks, Whedon pulled together a reunion of sorts from the many branches of his 'verse for a monochrome rendition of "Much Ado About Nothing", one of the playwright's overt comedies with a cynical outlook on the politics of trust and relationships. The result is irresistibly charming, a work of passion whose enthusiasm for Shakespearean theatricality and the actors involved manifests into a stylish, saucy, and untainted recontextualization of the material.

Avoiding the nuisance of dressing his actors in tunics and long dresses, Whedon places Much Ado About Nothing in a modern setting, happening in and around the extravagant home of Leonato (Clark Gregg), a wealthy businessman/governor. There, among friends, family, and questionable acquaintances, dressed in sharp clothes and navigating through the ritzy manor, a war of words brews between ex-lovers Beatrice (Amy Acker), Leonato's neice, and Benedick (Alexis Denisof), the companion of a visiting prince, Don Pedro (Reed Diamond). A romance blossoms in their midst: Claudio (Fran Kranz), another of the prince's companions, discovers an unrelenting draw to the daughter of Leonato, Hero (Jillian Morgese), leading to bashful shenanigans that point towards plans -- and schemes -- to their betrothal. Things go awry in the presence of the villainous Don John (Sean Maher), the brother of Don Pedro, who would like nothing more than to thwart their romance before it gets started. But the Hero-Claudio romantic link won't be the only one to flourish in Leonato's manor, if other guests and residents have a say in the matter.

Much Ado About Nothing sticks closely to the original play, which can be both delightful and a bit perplexing in this new context. Enthusiasts of Shakespeare's work should relish the authentic dramatics and tempo of the dialogue, fleshing out his plot of deception, adoration, and conflicted people discovering the line between hate and affection, which effortlessly flows through Leonato's quaint but lavish home. Looking closer, the Renaissance pomp and circumstance from the text occasionally betrays the updated modern setting and Jay Hunter's chic black-and-white cinematography, interchanging between odes to the French New Wave and reminding one of a Calvin Klein advertisement. Developments around marriage and the trickle of information about rumored deaths and police matters clash with the contemporary period, along with some of the humor and societal references; yet, it doesn't really matter when the direction allows the comedy's zeal and charisma to so robustly command its tone.

The fingerprints left by Whedon's direction can be spotted in the effortless conversation style achieved with Shakespeare's banter, as well as a more updated look at how the various relationships are formed and fleshed out. Little details, like focusing on Benedick and Beatrice's observable romantic past at the beginning as a spark to their spite, go a long way in grounding the works' broad theatrical nature. Much Ado About Nothing's vibrant inclinations mesh exceptionally well with Whedon's ability to squeeze humor into solemn scenarios, too, once the story moves into slightly darker territory that burdens nearly all the characters. The biggest compliment somebody can probably pay to a literal reinterpretation of Shakespeare's material in the modern era is that the dialogue fits and feels more naturally than expected, and that regularly happens during the dining room talks, the lavish parties, and the cloak-and-dagger scheming that takes place around Leonato's abode.

Whedon's gallery of actors play a major part in masking the gap between contemporary styling and Shakespearean dramaturgy, where the diverse personalities of Joss Whedon's other creations gather into a cornucopia of intriguing usage of their talents, often against type. Dollhouse's Amy Acker and Angel's Alexis Denisof capably harness the mesmerizing "hatemance" between Beatrice and Benedick, driven by their palpable charisma and quick wits as they bitterly trade barbs. The energy from their chemistry gracefully powers the central attraction to Much Ado About Nothing -- complimented by the familiar faces of Reed Diamond, Clark Gregg, and Ashley Johnson as the tack-sharp royalty and housemaids provoking their connection -- where the swift and passionate wordplay never overpowers their personality and poise. While our villain Don John comes to life through attention-grabbing sternness from Firefly's Sean Maher, the bigger surprise pops up in the referential police-drama tone that Nathan Fillion and Tom Lenk nail as comic-relief detectives Dogburry and Verges, mixing in a little Castle and Law & Order with the bard's work.

More than anything, Much Ado About Nothing conveys the spirit of crafting something explicitly for the joy in doing so: an unceremonious partial reunion of the Whedonverse for the purpose of acting out Shakespeare, which so happens to have been filmed, cut, and released for others to see. There's a degree of both intimacy and willing dedication that courses through the film's veins because of this purity, something that can get lost in more lavish theatrical productions of the bard's work. Whedon isn't out to dazzle with clever visuals, though shots of dancers suspended from trees and Benedick pacing up and down shadowy stairs are eye-grabbing; there's a costume ball that looks terrific in black and white. Nor is he out to overwhelm with extravagant dramatic displays, though moments like a defiant, desperate speech in Amy Acker's portrayal do emerge. Instead, it's about the simple, enthusiastic charm that comes from absorbing the home-brewed product of Joss Whedon's take on the great playwright, and it goes down very, very smoothly.

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