Much Ado About Nothing

Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing” says it all in the title. It’s a big fuss of a love story and comedy made out of little glissandos and misunderstandings, and to this day it stings with sexual energy and coy dialogue.

Some might say that a person like Joss Whedon would be primed to take up Shakespeare’s throne, as if the man behind “Serenity,” “The Avengers” and a number of other cult TV shows could do no wrong. His writing too is often sharp, eloquent and filled with double meaning.

But what I’ve always disliked about Whedon is the sense of smugness that pervades so many of his characters, relying on witty smarm to land each joke and each turn of phrase.

“Much Ado About Nothing” is Whedon’s passion project, shot in a matter of days with his team of regulars in-between production on “The Avengers,” and even Shakespeare cannot withstand the Whedon touch. Perhaps some would call this a match made in heaven, but the film has the snooty air of an inconsequential lark, even if the play is about nothing.

Shot in black and white and with episodic wipes in between acts and scenes, Whedon has little trouble transcribing “Much Ado About Nothing” to modern day. Shakespeare tells the story of the will they/won’t they courtship of Lady Beatrice (Amy Acker) and Lord Benedick (Alexis Denisof), he a wealthy, chauvinistic, but fairly charming gentleman with an affinity for women but a love for none, and she a confident and lovely maiden who in Whedon’s version has been burned by Benedick before.

The two are brought together for a party thrown by Leonato (Clark Gregg), and at the party, the crafty Don Pedro (Reed Diamond) pulls together a series of charades to ensnare the loves between Leonato’s daughter Hero (Jillian Morgese) and his associate Claudio (Fran Kranz) as well as between Beatrice and Benedick by convincing each that the other is madly in love with them.

The character relationships are somewhat unclear in Whedon’s modern day, but what remains constant is the spontaneity and nuance of these love stories and how they can be attributed to masquerade parties, scandalous affairs and modern romantic gamesmanship.

Where the film falls flat and insignificant is when Whedon turns the comedy into sitcom-grade broad strokes. One scene in particular sees Benedick flexing and doing push-ups in front of Beatrice with dopey masculinity clichés, and Whedon stages it either emptily or with hokey bassoons and tubas limping along over the top.

The film is shot in black and white, but it can’t hide the fact that it has a mediocre, dare I say TV quality to the whole affair: some glitz and glamour in the set dressing (Whedon’s actual home) but a lack of dynamic angles or heightened style everywhere else.

“Much Ado About Nothing” is at its best when Whedon steps back and lets his actors and Shakespeare drive the show. The story may be about nothing, but there’s still plenty of substance here. It’s a shame Whedon is only interested in its smarmy situation comedy and surface pleasures.

2 ½ stars

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