The romantic banter in Joss Whedon's Much Ado About Nothing flutters and flirts as it navigates a course of love that never runs smooth. It's a breath of fresh air in a dreary catalog of films based on Shakespeare's plays that either sag under the weight of the Bard's language or sacrifice the poetry in those words in the pursuit of realness.
Whedon's cast performs this comedy with an insouciance that suits the film's contemporary setting yet respects its venerated source. The prose lilts trippingly on their tongues, relaxed and conversational. The actors aren't classically trained thespians specializing in Othellos or Juliets. Rather, they're Whedon's friends and colleagues, supporting players in his films (Marvel's The Avengers) and cast members from his television series (Firefly, Angel, Buffy the Vampire Slayer). It's remarkable how comfortable they appear in these roles.
Shot in just 12 days, this black-and-white romp is the antidote to Whedon's Marvel Comics franchise. He's traded the blockbuster for the little movie, the superhero for Hero. Set in an affluent, tree-lined Los Angeles suburb, the film takes place over the course of a weekend party in which the guests drink martinis, roast marshmallows and conga late into the night. There's the occasional tryst, borne of lust or deceit (or both). The men are handsome, with pronounced jawlines and Brooks Brothers suits; the women are equally appealing, sporting summery fashions and casual elegance. It's an event to which many of us would love an invitation.
The focal couple are Benedick (Alexis Denisof) and Beatrice (Amy Acker), adversaries engaged in a "merry war" that belies the strong attraction each feels for the other. Their bickering is the stuff of Tracy and Hepburn, or Gable and Colbert, though Acker and Denisof don't exude the star wattage that would bring their characters to the fore at the expense of the other players. Whedon chooses egalitarianism for his troupe, faithful to the play's narrative.
As in many Shakespeare comedies, dark moments mark the dramatic action midway through Much Ado. But Whedon brings the proceedings back to boisterous life in the last act, when the estate's night watchmen -- looking like second-string Secret Service agents and behaving like Keystone Kops -- reveal the treachery that threatens to spoil true love. Nathan Fillion's performance as the constable Dogberry in this section is the film's comic highlight. Wounded by an insult, his ass-backward indignation achieves a droll momentum that will have you chuckling. All's well that ends well, indeed.