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Review: Whedon Does William Justice in “Much Ado About Nothing”

The short review: Although imperfect, Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing is the adaptation The Great Gatsby wishes it was: sleek, modern and full of life without sacrificing the language.

The long review: Hearing that Joss Whedon filmed an adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing was a lot like seeing that one of your favorite bands covered a classic song. Should GWAR be singing a Kansas cover? Should Morrissey be crooning a Delta Blues standard by Robert Johnson? Probably not, but in the end, you’re glad that they did.

Fresh off of filming The Avengers, Whedon was, by all accounts, deserving of a little time off. In fact, he was contractually obligated to take a week off between filming and beginning his director’s cut. Rather than soak up some sun or take the world’s longest nap, Whedon and his partner, producer Kai Cole, decided to invite a slew of their friends over and film a down and dirty adaptation of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. In 12 days. At their house. You know – just to help him unwind.

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At its core, Much Ado About Nothing is an ensemble comedy with moments of drama sprinkled in to keep the stakes high. In other words, it’s right up Whedon’s alley. Shot in black-and-white in the original Shakespearian language, Much Ado About Nothing looks gorgeous. Whereas the summer’s other high profile update of a classic work, The Great Gatsby, is like Daisy Buchanan – beautiful, sleek, but empty – Much Ado is like Beatrice: attractive, smart and full of fire. In other word, Much Ado is the film Great Gatsby wishes it was.

Much Ado is all about misunderstandings and playing star-crossed lovers against each other to trick them into living happily ever after. A true comedy of errors, the film is packed to the gills with jealousy, betrayal, misdirection and maladjustment, but their blows are softened by the airy, dancing language and, of course, Shakespeare’s rapier wit. The film doesn’t walk on eggshells around its tragic undercurrents; rather it embraces them to create a joyous, mirthful affair that will keep you invested, iambic pentameter and all.

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The cast is filled with Whedonverse regulars, who feel right at home trading in Whedon’s slang-y, rapid fire dialogue for the Bard’s English. Toplining the cast are Amy Acker as Beatrice and Alexis Denisof as Benedick, both of whom are immensely enjoyable and share an easy chemistry which gives their verbal sparring the same energy as two expert fencers parrying and riposting. Seeing the sworn enemies give in to their prickly romance is a treat to watch unfold on the screen, amplified by their deftness of language and physicality.

Although there are terrific performances all around, especially from the starcrossed lovers Fran Kranz (Claudio) and newcomer Jillian Margese (Hero), Nathan Fillion shines as the easily offended constable Dogberry, a man who is arguably the Michael Scott of Padua. Together, with his equally inept partner Verges (Tom Lenk), they inject frequent humorous reprieves from an already comedic outing. Let the record show that I would watch a Dogberry/Verges Bad Boys of Padua spin-off film should the occasion arise.

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Another highlight is Clark Gregg as patriarch and put-upon father Leonato. We’ve been so used to seeing Gregg as Avengers‘ amiable stuffed suit Phil Coulson that it was a refreshing change of pace to see Gregg flex his theatrical muscles. As the perpetually soused, easily swayed but ultimately dutiful father Leonato, Gregg often steals the scene, a difficult feat in this sufficiently stacked cast.

The film suffers a bit in terms of pacing, but as long as you prepare yourself for non-standard Whedon fare and embrace the film, it’s a damn good time. The dialogue, delivered in verse, rings true and the performances are top notch. It’s a rare thing when you can sense how much fun the cast is having with the material and it’s precisely that quality that sets Much Ado apart from the rest. We are the groundlings at Whedon’s Globe Theater, and in Much Ado, he exemplifies Shakespeare’s spirit by doing what the original play was meant to do: to entertain.

Much Ado About Nothing is in theaters in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco today. If you’d like to see it elsewhere, tell your city slicker friends to go see it. It’ll make a great double feature with Fast & Furious 6.

Have you seen the film? What do you think? Let us know in the comments below!

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