Joss Whedon’s “Much Ado About Nothing” is just about the sloppiest Shakespeare ever put on the screen. It may also be the most exhilarating — a profound trifle that reminds you how close Shakespeare’s comedies verge on darkness before pirouetting back into the light. A black-and-white modern-dress version of the play, shot in 12 days at the director’s Santa Monica house, the film has the slapdash air of Mickey and Judy putting on a show in a barn. Yet it’s a genuine crowd-pleaser — the preview audience I saw it with laughed, gasped, and applauded as if they were at the Globe Theatre — and the play’s themes of pretense and revelation, ignorance and honesty, love lost and passion regained, ring happily and true.
Whedon, of course, is the creator of such beloved pop-cult objects as “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Angel,” and the “Firefly”/“Serenity” sci-fi franchise, and, as such, a figure whose followers border on the maniacal. “Much Ado About Nothing” could be seen as his attempt to recapture some personal mojo after directing last year’s Marvel Comics behemoth “The Avengers” — the total budget for the new film probably doesn’t equal one day of crafts services for the blockbuster — but apparently the Bard has been an after-hours obsession of Whedon’s for years. He has been known to host informal Shakespeare-reading parties at his house, with his regular troupe of actors and actresses stepping up as needed. It sounds like something it’d be fun to be invited to. And now we have.
Not all the casting works, but enough of it does, and for the two roles that really matter, it works beautifully. Beatrice and Benedick — two aching smartypants who can’t admit they adore each other — are supposedly secondary characters, but they end up taking over the play and becoming its heart. If you’re new to the Whedon universe, Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof may initially seem generic: He’s got a bit of a Pierce Brosnan thing going on, and she could be Tina Fey’s more conventionally pretty sister. But both actors easily negotiate the obstacle course of their characters’ language — the wit Beatrice and Benedick use to dazzle others and protect themselves — and Acker in particular gives Beatrice the clarity and proud, honest emotions of a Jane Austen heroine. This is a great performance, nervy and fully felt, and it makes you simultaneously smile and tear up whenever Beatrice is onscreen.
The surrounding story is one of Shakespeare’s silliest yet most spring-loaded with misunderstandings. The princely Don Pedro (Reed Diamond) and his retinue are returning from the wars and make a stopover in Messina, which looks suspiciously like 21st-century California and whose governor, Leonato (Clark Gregg), welcomes Don Pedro into his home for extended revels.
The heroic and rather dull Claudio (Fran Kranz) falls for Leonato’s daughter Hero (Jillian Morgese), and they plan to wed; but the prince’s brother, the “plain-dealing villain” Don John (Sean Maher) stages false proof that Hero is a little on the easy side. Harsh words are exchanged, reputations besmirched, and everyone squares off to kill each other, but it’s a comedy, so saner heads prevail. Beatrice and Benedick stand on the sidelines throughout, insisting on their mutual loathing until the other characters get annoyed and gang up on them.
Whedon stages this with arch updates: There are iPods and limousines, the song interludes are now ambient lounge tunes, and the constables, led by Dogberry (Nathan Fillion), who provide the play’s “low” comedy, have been recast as Leonato’s security team. In fact, this “Much Ado” flips the script by having the highborn characters handle the slapstick — Benedick nearly does cartwheels trying to eavesdrop without being caught and in one scene Beatrice takes a header down a flight of stairs — while Fillion daringly underplays his part, letting the character’s mangling of the English language carry the laughs. Dogberry is one of Shakespeare’s great clowns, but his is the comedy of idiot leadership — he’s this play’s Michael Scott.
The action takes place over several days, which here translates into a house party where no one ever seems to go to bed. The wine flows freely, even alarmingly, and the filmmaking staggers at times; everyone seems slightly squiffed. Not much thought has gone into the camerawork, and the art direction — if there is art direction — is busy and overstuffed. Despite Whedon’s public comments about stressing the dark side of the play, this “Much Ado” errs on the side of whimsy, and more than once it comes down with the cutes. A couple of retakes here and there wouldn’t have hurt.
But the thing holds and — even better — lifts off, because the assembled company understands how closely this play skirts loneliness and pain, the tragedy of talking oneself out of love and the foolishness of trusting one’s eyes and ears rather than one’s heart. The wedding scene, in which Claudio damns Hero for her apparent betrayal, still shocks with its cruelty (Morgese, a limpid beauty, isn’t much of a Shakespearean, but her naivete works for her); and when Beatrice tells Benedick what he can do to earn her love — “Kill Claudio” — the play shudders to a halt on the edge of the abyss.
And then? All’s well that ends well, as the man said, and the mortified expressions on half the characters as they realize how close to that abyss they have come only makes the celebration richer. “Man is a giddy thing,” says Benedick with relief, and Whedon has given us a giddy bauble that’s much ado about many, many things indeed.