For his legions of fans, director Joss Whedon can do no wrong. So perhaps his radical departure from worlds filled superheroes and vampires into the realm of Shakespearean comedy is a sincere effort to expand the cultural knowledge of the fanboy crowd.
It turns out that Whedon has been a longtime Shakespeare aficionado, and the box-office success of The Avengers pretty much gave him the opportunity to whatever he wants. So give him credit for pursuing his passion with his shrewd adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing, even if his approach too often feels like a calculated and ill-conceived exercise.
The oft-told story is one of romance between playfully feuding lovers Beatrice (Amy Acker) and Benedick (Alexis Denisof) and their acquaintances who flirt and manipulate each other during various gatherings. Among the players are Claudio (Fran Kranz), Don John (Sean Maher), Leonato (Clark Gregg), Hero (Jillian Morgese), Don Pedro (Reed Diamond) and Dogberry (Nathan Fillion).
Whedon, who also adapted the talky screenplay, stages the action with American actors in a contemporary setting with modern touches galore, but opts to have the characters speak conversationally in the same verse as the source material, maybe as an attempt to prove the play’s timeless universality.
Such an anachronistic approach has been tried before with mixed results, but it sounds awkward, and it’s probably not what the Bard intended. Even fans who might enjoy seeing a new interpretation of their favorite scenes will find that the blend of 21st century verse and Elizabethan-era prose becomes tedious.
This is low-budget territory, with Whedon merely gathering a group of his friends and shooting much of the film within his own house. He also employs hand-held camerawork and black-and-white cinematography.
However, the playful spirit of the material shines through in various scenes, thanks in part to a strong ensemble cast — filled with frequent Whedon collaborators — that shares the filmmaker’s passion for the material. Fillion gets some of the funniest lines in a scene-stealing portrayal.
This version of Much Ado About Nothing ultimately is just that, and it does little to improve on previous big-screen incarnations. Still, it’s fun to imagine some naive die-hard Avengers fans paying for a ticket to see this film, and five minutes later thinking they walked into the wrong theater.
Rated PG-13, 109 minutes.