There's a certain irony to Joss Whedon's adaptation of "Much Ado About Nothing": While the script culls a beloved literary achievement more than 400 years old, it has relatively uncomplicated aims. Made in the immediate aftermath of Whedon's massive production of "The Avengers" and shot over the course of a two-week period at the cult director's Santa Monica home, "Much Ado About Nothing" has the scrappy feel of a high school play populated by professionals looking to take the pressure off. Call it a Shakespearean catharsis or just call it a lark -- either way, the movie represents Whedon's least essential work, regardless of the material's inherent comedic inspiration.
Appropriately, the story of "Much Ado About Nothing" is contained enough to fit Whedon's low aims. Setting the action in a posh suburban neighborhood, the director's take remains faithful to the exploits of Benedick (Alexis Denisof) and Beatrice (Amy Acker), acquaintances unwilling to admit their mutual attraction. Meanwhile, Claudio (Fran Kranz) and Hero (Jillian Morgese) initially plan to get married until the scheming Don John (Sean Maher) lies about Hero's infidelity and ruins the wedding. The situation is investigated by the constable Dogberry (Nathan Fillion). Hero's father Leonato (Clark Gregg) agrees to fake Hero's death as a means of convincing Claudio to fall in love with her again.
While the material is fairly consistent with the source, the contemporary setting means that all these characters deliver their Elizabethan dialogue in suits and other modern day ware, while carrying cell phones, driving cars and otherwise going out their lives under the signs of modernity. Shakespeare's plays have been explored through this process so often that the approach is essentially a subgenre unto itself, but in "Much Ado About Nothing," the technique feels less like calculation than laziness.
The actors, many of whom repeatedly surface in Whedon's oeuvre, leer and smirk at each other while delivering their lines as though the entire production constituted an inside joke. While the black-and-white cinematography underlines the disconnect between setting and plot, the movie is otherwise unremarkably staged through production values that make Whedon's web series "Dr. Horrible's Sing-a-Long Blog" look like a blockbuster.
Of course, to a large degree because the actors realize the potential of the material, "Much Ado About Nothing" has plenty of funny moments, many of which are slapstick. The attempts made by the klutzy Benedict to impress Beatrice with a series of manly poses are matched by a similar show of bravado by Fillion as his character attempts to maintain the air of a slick detective. At the movie's world premiere, thousands of hardcore Whedon fans erupted into loud guffaws at each of these small moments, giving too much credit to the throwaway gags that exclusively define the movie's negligible appeal.
Other plot threads are decidedly less effective. The plight of Hero and meek Claudio has been rendered fairly bland, a trait that apparently runs in Hero's family: Her affluent father Leonato is unsophisticatedly brought to life by Gregg in a performance that borders on self-parody. Nevertheless, by the time the movie arrives at its climactic party scene, "Much Ado About Nothing" has unapologetically made clear that nobody involved wants more from the material than to play around with it.
That could make the movie into a useless exercise if it didn't bear Whedon's stamp. One of the few mainstream genre directors capably of squeezing humanity into stories that frequently rely on special effects, Whedon admirably pays tribute to the traditions of popular entertainment that precede him. However, for its duration, "Much Ado About Nothing" feels less like Whedon doing Shakespeare than Shakespeare doing Whedon.
Criticwire grade: C+
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Whedon's fans will bring the movie some level of cult potential, but its theatrical prospects are extremely limited. An alternative grassroots release seems most likely.