As has been clear ever since his Buffy the Vampire Slayer made him a famous name, writer-director Joss Whedon is a restless sort, someone for whom the idea of down time appears to be inconceivable.
So, as news reports have told it, Whedon had a break planned last year after he finished shooting Marvel’s The Avengers — then decided the best way to use that break was to gather a group of acting friends and shoot a version of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing at his sprawling home. And to not only edit down the plan for the movie, and direct it, but also to write the music for it. And do all that in 12 days.
And it turns out, do it pretty well.
In local theaters Friday, Much Ado is a largely entertaining modern-dress take on the Shakespeare comedy, with Amy Acker absolutely wonderful. With Shakespeare’s dialogue retained, and the film in black-and-white, some moviegoers will need to make a few mental adjustments. While Whedon has long read Shakespeare — and hosted at-home reading with friends — there are points where his trimming of the Much Ado text has been too extreme, creating some plot holes that are at best barely patched over. Still, the piece as a whole is a strong combination of comedy and abrupt drama, breezing along to its dancing conclusion.
The film also works around some favorite Whedon topics, about identity and deception, about who we are and what we aim to be. Central to that issue are Beatrice (Acker) and Benedick (Alexis Denisof, Angel, How I Met Your Mother). Once they were a couple. Now they are adamantly apart, Benedick determined never to marry, Beatrice soured on the very idea of love.
But love is in the air, and not just for those two. Various eminences have gathered at the home of Leonato (Clark Gregg), the governor of Messina, Beatrice’s uncle and the father of Hero (Jillian Morgese). The warrior Don Pedro (Reed Diamond) has come to visit after defeating his brother, Don John (Sean Maher), who with two associates has come to Leonato’s as Pedro’s prisoner. Also in the party are Benedick and Claudio (Fran Kranz). And then the trouble starts.
Claudio is smitten by Hero but timid about wooing her; at a masked ball, Pedro woos Hero for Claudio. At the same time, Beatrice and Benedick are tossing barbs at each other — until their friends trick Beatrice into believing that Benedick loves her, and con Benedick into believing Beatrice is also in love.
That might seem enough, especially for a movie running under two hours, but there’s more: Don John wants to cause chaos among his enemies, and does so with a plot to deceive Claudio about Hero’s virtue. The results of that plot spin through the entire group, turning what has to that point seemed like a relatively mild game into something deadly serious.
While Much Ado returns finally to more cheerful ground, it leaves the audience full of notions about false fronts and deception, and love. (Can true affection spring from trickery? And can other tricks just as easily kill it?) Whedon has made strong use of his home, finding little hideaways here and there, taking advantage of wooded corners and the turns in hallways.
One of the funniest scenes, in fact, depends on tall glass windows, with people talking indoors while Benedick tries to eavesdrop undetected on the outside.
The acting is also fine for the most part. One exception is Castle’s Nathan Fillion, also part of the Whedon circle, who too much underplays the farcical constable Dogberry. But Denisof and Acker — both veterans of Whedon’s Angel — are an excellent pair, whether acting together or apart, Denisof has more than a little knack for comedy (he recurs as anchorman Sandy Rivers on How I Met Your Mother) and that comes in handy here, where he not only has to be funny verbally but physically.
But it is Acker who shines most — smart, vibrant and beautiful, the kind of woman to whom many men would be helplessly drawn even as she is detailing their inadequacy. In the end, she is someone to make much ado about.
Rich Heldenfels writes about popular culture for the Beacon Journal and for Ohio.com, including the HeldenFiles Online, www.ohio.com/blogs/heldenfiles. He is also on Facebook and Twitter. You can contact him at 330-996-3582 or firstname.lastname@example.org.