Simple Shakespeare

Joss Whedon takes a break from superheroes to present a modern take on the Bard

The Bard gets a stripped down treatment from one of the most unlikely of candidates: Joss Whedon, recent maker of massively expensive geek boy extravaganzas.

The man who gave us The Avengers got his buddies together at his house to shoot a rather reputable and very pleasant black and white take on Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing, just to show us that things don't have to explode all of the time in his cinematic forays. The result is intimate, funny and even unique for a play that has been adapted many times.

The film was shot in less than two weeks, an extension of parties Whedon hosted with friends and colleagues that featured Shakespeare readings. Consequently, it has the look of a quaint dinner party, with women in sundresses and men in tailored suits. It's a breezy experiment that works for most of its running time.

Some of the conventions and odd twists of centuries-old Shakespeare's plays don't necessarily fit in a modern setting. There are a few moments that come off a bit awkwardly. Conversely, there are times during this production where the exchanges seem organic and natural, and the words and plot developments stream as if the thing were written yesterday. Crazy how that Shakespeare stuff plays today.

The trick wedding near the film's end is probably the best example of Shakespeare's tactics not translating to a modern presentation. Still, it's fun to watch the likes of Clark Gregg as Leonato fighting to have the whole thing make sense; even when Much Ado sputters a bit, the performers are still game.

Having impressed Whedon at one of his shindigs, Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof are awarded the plum parts of Beatrice and Benedick, the reluctant lovers who fall for each other in the most whimsical of ways. Both tear into their parts like a lion tearing into a zebra that's been basted with peanut butter (For this particular illustration, I have imagined a lion that really loves peanut butter to amplify my point. Not sure if peanut butter lust is standard among lions).

Acker shines the most, bringing a sophisticated sass to a role played by Emma Thompson on screen in Kenneth Branagh's more traditional movie adaptation (with the exception of casting Keanu Reeves as the bad guy; nothing traditional about that). She engagingly depicts the "never fall in love" Beatrice's character transition from stubborn wisecracker to swooning and most certainly available.

Providing some of the film's funnier moments is Denisof, especially when Benedick utilizes some pushups and yoga moves to impress Beatrice during a conversation. Denisof employs little touches, like the shaving of his beard, to depict Benedick's transformation from snarky antagonist to silly suitor.

It's nice to see Gregg alive again in a Whedon movie after biting the dust in The Avengers. He proves right at home in the patriarch role and, given his outerwear, had me thinking he might call upon the Hulk when his daughter Hero (Jillian Morgese) is betrayed by Don Pedro (Reed Diamond). Another Whedon vet, Nathan Fillion, provides decent comic relief as the lawman, Dogberry.

Taking over for Keanu Reeves would be Sean Maher as Don John. He's a little more at home in the part, though his performance isn't necessarily impactful. I did like Whedon's stylistic touch of showing Don John's arrest on a cellular phone's video screen.

As with most efforts to adapt Shakespeare, this one doesn't always work—but when it does it pops and crackles with the best of them. Whedon, as it turns out, has very constructive parties. I'm wondering: did he have a lot of Halloween parties where people came dressed as Marvel characters? Is that how we wound up with The Avengers?

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