A sly, lyrical goof

Rated 4.0

A couple summers ago, writer-director Joss Whedon found himself under contractual obligation to take a hiatus between shooting and editing his Marvel Studios blockbuster The Avengers. Whedon used that time—a quick two weeks—to have some friends over and whip up a shoestring black-and-white Shakespeare comedy. The result is a very different kind of summer movie: the lovable lark.

It should come as no surprise that the Whedonverse—that playground for vampire hunters and space travelers and kaleidoscopic superheroes—has enough room for the enduringly witty banter of the Bard. Much Ado About Nothing is not your average screwball wedding-conspiracy comedy, but rather a sly lyrical goof on gender politics, tipped precipitously close to tragedy. As plied by alumni of his earlier entertainment ventures—which include Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Dollhouse, Firefly and Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog—this particular play makes for good Whedon material.

The gist is this. Bigwig politico and house-party host Leonato (Clark Gregg) has a niece, Beatrice (Amy Acker), and a colleague, Benedick (Alexis Denisof), with some pre-existing bad blood between them—ergo, also, a great spark of romantic potential. While other party guests use some pride-puncturing trickery to fan that spark into a flame, Leonato presides over the engagement of his daughter Hero (Jillian Morgese) to impressionable young lord Claudio (Fran Kranz). But Claudio’s rival, scheming bastard Don John (Sean Maher), concocts a mistaken-identity scheme by which to wrongly and viciously accuse Hero of unchastity. What follows is an extremely awkward nuptial interruption, after which things go really bonkers: The officiant suggests further misleading the already deluded groom into thinking his would-be bride has died from the shock of being jilted, and Beatrice and Benedick, upon finally admitting their mutual affection, hit yet another an impasse when she insists that he kill Claudio for publicly slut-shaming her cousin.

So, things do get a little dark for a while there. But not being in color is no excuse for this film to affect noirish airs. Jay Hunter’s grab-and-go cinematography softens the vaguely fashion-mag gloss of sharp suits and summer dresses, letting just enough lightness into the romantic resolution. More importantly, the performers, unequally versed and perhaps unequally rehearsed, achieve ensemble Shakespearean coherence through sheer ebullient camaraderie. The chemistry is there. Acker and Denisof handle their verbal duels—collectively the heart of the play—with aplomb, although she’s the real standout of the two, able to say as much in a glance as in many lines of verse. In the plot’s periphery of bumbling cops, Nathan Fillion similarly shines as Constable Dogberry, perhaps best capturing the overall spirit of the enterprise: doing less instead of more, so as to stay out of the play’s way.

Whedon supplies some cheeky contemporary touches here and there, but the salient feature of his take is seeming stripped-down, with a roughness around its edges by which the stronger, singular moments are more aptly framed. We can hear why the poetry has lasted these many centuries, and how much this director and this cast appreciate it. With a spit take here, an overdone drunken stumble there and an occasional sense of actors going through their given business more intently than they listen to each other, some of this Much Ado’s notes may jar, but none seem false.

What’s interesting is how Whedon’s own Santa Monica home seems as fitting a locale for this as was Kenneth Branagh’s posh postcard Tuscany of 20 years ago. For all its challenges, this particular play is a versatile piece of theater. As cinema, it obviously is highly relatable. Sure, it’s probably true that being a Shakespeare fan or a Whedon fan is prerequisite to full enjoyment here, but imagine the soullessness of someone who’s a fan of neither. Of course, Whedon will be subject to the critical charity with which a TV ace and comic-book-blockbuster conqueror gets rewarded for dipping so eagerly into the classics. But that doesn’t make his larkish shoestring Shakespeare any less lovable.