Joss Whedon, noted mastermind behind TV hits like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and megaflicks like The Avengers, goes softer, yet more urgent, with his modern-day retelling of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. Set in Santa Monica, at the home of Leonato (Clark Gregg), the familiar if condensed tale simmers with romance and intrigue, as sparring ex-lovers Benedick (Alexis Denisof) and Beatrice (Amy Acker) try to lend support to his friend Claudio (Fran Kranz) and her cousin Hero (Jillian Morgese) on the eve of their marriage, even as others such as Don John (Sean Maher) seek to rain on the impending parade.
Shot in a dreamy, 1970s sort of black-and-white by cinematographer Jay Hunter, Much Ado has at once both a softness and a clarity that is unusual in most Shakespeare productions, which emphasizes the ostentatious gilt among a teeming populace of characters born high and low. The backdrop for the action—Whedon’s own home, as it were—provides the book-lined nooks and crannies necessary for the eavesdropping and trysts that percolate the action. Shortening the narrative works better than getting the audience to buy into the idea that a woman’s virginal state is of paramount importance. In 2013. In California. But Morgese’s incandescent portrayal hooks us, so much so that when Claudio accuses her of treachery, and Leonato believes him, our hearts break.
The tug of war between Benedick and Beatrice is central to the plot, and indeed, their chemistry is palpable, but the movie belongs clearly to Nathan Fillion. His take on Constable Dogberry, usually depicted as an over-the-top buffoon, is played straight, like a film-noir inspector, and therefore reveals a more Falstaffian creation. The movie ends, as most Shakespearian comedies do, in weddings and dancing, and one can’t help but wish to be transposed to what seems to have been an incredibly good time had by all.