What a piece of work is Joss Whedon. With his artful, engaging adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing, the creator of such critically praised TV shows as Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly checks off another item on his lengthy to-do list. Create a groundbreaking symbol of female empowerment? Done. Use that series to write a musical that is one of TV’s best hours? Uh huh. Follow it up with other cult hits? Yes. Take the helm of the most anticipated superhero movie in the history of comic book nerdom (The Avengers) and deliver a blockbuster? No problem.
Whedon spent 12 days making Much Ado with actor friends and co-producer/wife Kai Cole at his Santa Monica home; the film, shot in black and white, is the very definition of a labor of love. He moves the story from Shakespeare’s Italy to contemporary North America, with the original text along for the ride.
This marriage of old and new is a merry one; the terrific cast makes the language sing without fuss or histrionics, and Whedon gets the tone just right, setting the action amid a long, messy weekend of drunken reveling, the kind punctuated by empty wine bottles, morning tippling and endless misunderstandings.
The plot — which you know if you saw the lush 1993 Much Ado by Kenneth Branagh — involves the visit of a prince, Don Pedro (Reed Diamond), to the home of Leonato (Clark Gregg) and the mischief that ensues when one of Don Pedro’s men, Claudio (Fran Kranz), falls for Leonato’s daughter Hero (Jillian Morgese). Sulking in the corners is the prince’s villainous brother (Sean Maher), plotting to make everyone miserable.
But the heart of Much Ado About Nothing, the reason the play has endured, are the sparring lovers, Beatrice and Benedick (Whedon veterans Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof), whose tart tongues get in the way of their true desires. Whedon cleverly plucks out a thread of the text that hints of a past gone wrong between the pair and offers the audience a glimpse of them in happier times, which adds context and a surprising pathos to their verbal battles.
The film makes great use of visual jokes — soldiers Benedick and Claudio are bunking in Hero’s teddy-bear-stuffed childhood room — and the pratfalls are precisely the sort of silly physical comedy that would have played well in Shakespeare’s day. Even the cultural anachronisms that crop up can’t derail the film; by the time they arise you’re too charmed to care. Much Ado About Nothing couldn’t look more different than Branagh’s traditional version, and yet its big-hearted spirit is equal to the task of celebrating a classic while highlighting the reasons to remake it.
Cast: Amy Acker, Alexis Denisof, Fran Kranz, Nathan Fillion, Clark Gregg, Reed Diamond.
Director: Joss Whedon.
Screenwriter: Joss Whedon. Based on the play by William Shakespeare.
Producers: Kai Cole, Joss Whedon.
A Roadside Attractions release. Running time: 107 minutes. Some sexuality, brief drug use. Playing in Miami-Dade: Aventura, Cocowalk, South Beach, Sunset; in Broward: Gateway; in Palm Beach: Palace, Living Room, Shadowood, Delray.