As improbable and charming a follow-up to “The Avengers” as could be imagined, Joss Whedon’s “Much Ado About Nothing” is an inspired example of Shakespeare-on-a-shoestring. Updating the setting but, mercifully, not the language of the Bard’s great love comedy, this nimble black-and-white rendition honors a classic text, adroitly performed by a game ensemble of Whedon TV alums, while teasing out all manner of anachronistic in-jokes and sight gags that enhance its merry spirit. More apt to please the writer-director’s devotees than literary purists, this singular item will require skillful handling, but has sufficiently broad appeal to woo an indie following.
Like so much in the Shakespeare canon, “Much Ado” has often been adapted onstage to accommodate a present-day milieu. Whedon’s do-it-yourself labor of love was shot over 12 days last year at his Santa Monica manse, whose scenic gardens, Spanish-style architecture and casually elegant vibe are not too far removed, conceptually, from the idyllic Tuscan villa of Kenneth Branagh’s celebrated 1993 film, a realm of lushly romantic fantasy made momentarily concrete.
Part of what allows the film to be so effective, despite a budget probably not far in excess of an “Avengers” craft services table, is the subtle balance and contrast it achieves between courtly language and contempo mores. The archaic codes of honor that govern this late-16th-century work provide a poignant reminder of what’s been lost in the rites of modern coupling, even as the characters’ onscreen dalliances, though filmed with tasteful discretion, help to bring out the text’s deep, lustrous sensuality.
A wordless prologue of a young man quietly getting dressed after a one-night stand initially suggests we’re in for a droopy exercise in monochrome mumblecore. It’s thus refreshing, and only briefly disorienting, when the characters open their mouths and let fly pleasantries and insults of such ribald wit and lyric grace, no less pleasurable to listen to for being delivered sans British accents.
The pleasures here are largely those of any reading or staging: the impassioned courtship of Hero (Jillian Morgese), the beauteous young daughter of Leonato (Clark Gregg), by the lovesick Claudio (Fran Kranz); the cruel scheme of Don John (Sean Maher) to sabotage Claudio and Hero’s union; and most of all, the splendid sparring matches between Beatrice (Amy Acker) and Benedick (Alexis Denisof), their unique scorn for each other and, indeed, the very notion of love marking them as a perfect match.
But there’s also an impish streak at play here, an impulse to tweak not just the characters’ pretensions but also the production’s modern trappings. And so Benedick delivers a soliloquy in a room full of stuffed animals and Barbie dolls; a masquerade ball comes with a swimming pool and a marshmallow-toasting station; and the tension of Claudio and Hero’s stalled nuptials is briefly dispelled when Don John helps himself to a designer cupcake. Much comic exaggeration is made of the stage directions when Benedick, trying to eavesdrop, dives behind a shrubbery far too flimsy to conceal a man in broad daylight.
These riffs aside, the actors somehow maintain a deadpan obliviousness that keeps the conception from tilting into silliness and, crucially, dovetails with their crisp, focused delivery of the text. Some of the thesps are clearly more comfortable than others with the heightened formality of the language; Reed Diamond looks and sounds supremely at ease as Don Pedro, while Morgese at times shows a hesitation not entirely at odds with her Hero’s demure nature. Overall, however, the thesping feels remarkably unified, with Acker’s formidable Beatrice, and Denisof’s physically elastic Benedick, rightly commanding the lion’s share of attention.
Having amassed a cast of faces from “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Angel,” “Firefly” and “Dollhouse,” Whedon can’t resist the opportunity to wink at his legions of fans. This is especially apparent in the banter between bumbling cop Dogberry (Nathan Fillion) and his partner, Verges (Tom Lenk), which results in some of the piece’s few strained moments. The director otherwise maintains a brisk but not frenzied pace, keeping the verbiage flowing in a succession of scenes fluidly edited by Whedon and co-producer Daniel S. Kaminsky.
The wise decision to shoot on black-and-white (done by Jay Hunter on the Red camera) lends the picture an air of timeless romanticism enhanced by Whedon’s lightly applied score, which includes two songs drawn from the play, “Sigh No More” and “Heavily.” As Shakespeare updates go, “Much Ado About Nothing” may not have the visual creativity of Michael Almereyda’s much more elaborate “Hamlet” (2000), but the film’s whimsically patched-together spirit feels satisfyingly of a piece with the play to which it so endearingly pays homage.