How does one follow the biggest superhero film in box office history? Perhaps a better way to phrase it is, how does the man behind some of the most beloved cult TV series and characters in recent pop history follow the biggest superhero film in box office history? If we're talking about the much-loved Joss Whedon – who else? – you decamp to your home, grab a camera, invite over your friends, and create a delightful, DIY, modern-day black-and-white adaptation of Shakespeare's "Much Ado About Nothing." Duh.
The result is an utter joy, Whedon's most emotionally resonant and fully realized feature film to date. And I say that as one who is not a devoted member of the Whedon army. It's not that I haven't enjoyed much of his work – I have, often. But I’ve not seen every episode of "Buffy" and "Firefly," I never meandered into "Dollhouse," and I thought "Dr. Horrible" was worth one viewing, but no more. Happily, outside of actor recognition, Whedon fanaticism is not a requirement to enjoy “Much Ado.”
Sure, "Firefly" fans will get an especially sharp kick out of seeing Nathan Fillion's Dogberry react with horrified shock to being called an ass. But so will everyone else, and that's Whedon's genius here. He has created a Shakespeare adaptation that will please just about everyone. No easy task, that, especially since the first scene of the actor's speaking Shakespeare's dialogue feels jarring. Sure, modern-day versions retaining the original language have worked before … But will it here, in sunny, privileged Santa Monica? And will it be more than just another Bard adaptation? The whole project, after all, seemed to come out of nowhere, leaving one unsure what to expect. But we were wrong to worry. Whedon pulls it off, and makes us blush for having doubted that he could.
This incarnation of "Much Ado" was shot over twelve days entirely at the director's home, making this a sort of geek Architectural Digest spread come to life. For the uninitiated, or those who perhaps haven’t come upon the text since high school (like me), the film opens with the arrival of Don Pedro and company to the home of the wealthy and charming Leonato (a never-better Clark Gregg). His right-hand man, young Claudio (Franz Kline) is in love with Leonato's daughter, Hero (Jillian Morgese), a match eased along by the cheerfully meddlesome Don Pedro.
Meanwhile, one member of the Don Pedro party, the caddish Benedick (Alexis Denisof) has a checkered past with Leo's tart-tongued niece, Beatrice (Amy Acker). The duo form the film's most irresistible couple, both sharing a seemingly unbreakable bond of disgust. This is due to the crisp, wonderfully meaningful Bill Shakespeare dialogue (“When I said I would die a bachelor,” opines Benedick, “I did not think I should live till I was married”), but also its two stars.
I was unfamiliar with Denisof and Acker, both Whedon regulars from “Buffy” and “Dollhouse,” respectively, but I can say without question that “Much Ado” should make them stars – or bigger stars, depending on your knowledge of the Joss-ary. Via knowing glances, sharp put downs, and truly funny pratfalls, they bring Benedick and Beatrice to life in vivid fashion. Part of the fun of watching (and reading) “Much Ado About Nothing” is witnessing the clever series of pranks at its heart, and none is more enjoyable than the attempted union of B and B, with Denisof and Acker creating one of 2012’s most winning onscreen couples.
There are darker tricks afoot, as Claudio’s scheming brother Don John (Sean Maher) attempts to break the forthcoming marriage of Caudio and Hero. It is to Whedon’s and the actors’ credit that even knowing the story’s twists and turns, one finds the slander of Hero and, especially, the anger of her cousin Beatrice, so moving. Even during the film’s most love-sick stretch, there is humor, arriving in the form of Fillion’s Dogberry. As the buffoonish cop whose team discovers Don John’s plan, Fillion brings a burst of Whedon-y spirit to the proceedings, and despite little screen time, gives one of the film’s most memorable and subtle performances.
“Much Ado About Nothing” appropriately ends with lovers united, evildoers punished, and, in this incarnation, a helluva party. Perhaps the film’s greatest accomplishment is the feeling this conclusion brings, one of smiles and joy. Watching Whedon’s take is a bit like sitting in on a dinner party of friends who feel not obnoxious, but friendly and lovable. Is it all a bit slight, and sometimes even amateurish? Sure, but that’s what happens when a group of friends make a film over twelve days. Its off-the-cuff nature makes for a film that is not flawless – the music is a bit daft, and some of the acting a little too “large” for the intimate setting – but is, from beginning to end, delightful. One gets the sense that this is less of an “Avengers” stop-gap for its director, and more a bold little battery-charger. Whatever Whedon’s intent, for audiences, it is one of 2012’s most unexpected treats. [A-]