In contrast to World War Z, Joss Whedon's spirited black-and-white adaptation of William Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing succeeds because it's faithful to its source. By dusting off and restaging a centuries-old wellspring of contemporary romantic comedy, Whedon's work reveals an adult sophistication that complements the pop-culture romanticism he's shown in TV shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly.
Shot at Whedon's Santa Monica home, Much Ado's schemes and deceptions seem like good fun at first. Over the course of a long weekend, Leonato (Clark Gregg, goofing off with gusto after his serious turns in all those Avengers tie-ins) and his visiting friend Don Pedro (Reed Diamond) conspire to arrange a pair of marriages: Leonato's daughter Hero (newcomer Jillian Morgese) will marry Pedro's friend Claudio (Fran Kranz) while Pedro undertakes "one of Hercules' labors" and reunites Leonato's sharp-tongued niece Beatrice (Amy Acker) with her pompous former lover Benedick (Alexis Denisof). Only the machinations of a training-wheels Iago like Don John the Bastard (Sean Maher, who's very sexy in his scene with a female Conrade) stands in the way of Shakespeare's ideal comic ending — wedding celebrations all day, followed by dancing all night.
I've never found Shakespearean language to be laugh-out-loud hilarious, but I've always enjoyed the ways filmmakers broaden Shakespeare's comedy by emphasizing tone and gesture. Most of Much Ado's comic highlights occur the morning after a boozy, all-night bacchanal, when the scheme to trick Benedick and Beatrice into believing that they're secretly in love with each other unfolds. Beatrice's and Benedick's numerous pratfalls as they eavesdrop on their friends are offset by the houseguests' subtler gestures, as when Claudio and Pedro fist-bump while Benedick lounges in what looks like a little girl's bedroom and stares longingly at a picture of his newly beloved. More comedy comes from Whedon regular Nathan Fillion, who has some straight-faced fun as the malapropism-plagued watchman Dogberry.
However, the film's sprightly mood sours significantly once Claudio rescinds his marriage proposal to Hero and Beatrice asks Benedick to avenge her cousin by killing Claudio. Beatrice's speech — wherein she cries out "I cannot be a man with wishing; therefore I will die a woman with grieving" — opens up a gender-based wound that no amount of visual or verbal slapstick can quickly heal.
The fault, then, is not in the film's stars. But it may be with Shakespeare's play itself. No character in Much Ado is as endlessly fascinating as As You Like It's Rosalind, and the language doesn't achieve the peaks of a comedy like Twelfth Night. Plus, the central romantic couple is very tough to root for. Denisoff plays Benedick as a dour tightwad, while Beatrice's constant sniping seems to mask a deeper unhappiness no matter who claims "there's little of the melancholy element in her."
Nevertheless, Whedon's success in adapting, producing, directing, and scoring a capable Shakespeare film impresses.
Much Ado About Nothing