Shakespearean House Party
Joss Whedon invites his favorite actors over for an Elizabethan romp
Starring: Reed Diamond, Amy Acker, Fran Kranz, Nathan Fillion, Alexis Denisoff, Sean Maher, Clark Gregg
Directed by: Joss Whedon
Stars: 2 1/2 out of 4
"Much Ado About Nothing" has been brought to film several times. Joss Whedon's black-and-white version is shot with modern-day dress and technology, but he's not the first director to move the story from its 16th-century origins.
1993: The best known is Kenneth Branagh's version, starring Denzel Washington, Emma Thompson, Keanu Reeves and Kate Beckinsale and shot as a colorful full-costume, period piece.
1973:Sam Waterston starred in this U.S. TV version in which Don Pedro and his men are Teddy Roosevelt's Rough Riders returning from the Spanish-American War, and Beatrice is a Suffragette.
2005: The British Broadcasting Corp. took the tale into a modern-day television news program setting in its ShakespeaReTold series starring Damian Lewis ("Homeland").
Popular movie and television writer/director Joss Whedon ("The Avengers," "Firefly," "Dollhouse," "Buffy the Vampire Slayer") took a working vacation when he decided to get together secretly with some of his favorite actors and make a modern-day version of the popular Shakespeare play "Much Ado About Nothing," in his home.
It's updated only in the sense that the characters have been transported in time from the 16th century to a modern-day setting where they wear suits, work out and drive cars.
In every other respect, these are Shakespeare's men and women, talking in Elizabethan English and acting as if they are the princes, counts and lords of a past era, with no realization that their surroundings are not of their place or time.
This anachronistic approach to bringing "Much Ado" to film is distracting to the point that it might take you several minutes to adjust to seeing the story unfold in this out-of-place setting. But once you overcome that hurdle, you can enjoy this unique presentation.
Whedon has adapted Shakespeare's work to a comfortable viewing time of less than two hours but otherwise has left the bard's barbs and witticisms intact.
Because it's a classic Shakespearean comedy, the plot is not in doubt. It involves characters sparring with words, deceptions, mistaken identity, misinterpretations, a wedding, tragedy and a happy ending.
For those of you not familiar with "Much Ado About Nothing," the lead sparring duo is Benedick and Beatrice, who appear to have contempt for each other but who might secretly long for one another. Meanwhile, shy Claudio is in love with Hero, so he has his friend Don Pedro woo her only to tell her that he has done this for Claudio. As the wedding is being planned, Claudio, Don Pedro, Leonato (Hero's father), Hero and the maid Margaret scheme to bring Benedick and Beatrice together by making each believe the other loves him/her. All of their fun is nearly thwarted by Don John (Don Pedro's brother), who schemes with Borachio and Conrade to ruin the wedding by making Claudio believe Hero has cheated on him. Got all that?
The actors are a group of mostly familiar faces; many of them we know from several of Whedon's previous works, including Reed Diamond ("Dollhouse"), Amy Acker ("Angel," "Dollhouse"), Fran Kranz ("Dollhouse"), Nathan Fillion ("Firefly"), Alexis Denisoff ("Dollhouse," "Angel"), Sean Maher ("Firefly") and Clark Gregg ("The Avengers").
It's clear that all of them signed on to have a good time, as they smile and cavort their way through Whedon's movie, handing in quite capable performances throughout in a strong ensemble endeavor.
"Much Ado" is not for everybody, to be sure. You'll have to be looking for something dramatically removed from the typical summer fare of broad, big-budget action and low-brow comedy.
If you are a fan of Shakespeare, then get thee to the theater.
If you like low-budget, artsy films that offer you a different cinematic experience, then you should enjoy "Much Ado," regardless of your experience with Shakespeare.
But if you are a fan of Whedon's previous works, featuring vampire slayers, space cowboys and superheroes, and you are looking for more of the same, perhaps it would be best if you stayed home and waited until the Avengers reassemble.