News Column

Movie Review: Set in California, This 'Much Ado' a Pleasing Romp

June 21, 2013

Sharon Eberson

Joss Whedon at 2012 Comic-Con (photo: Gage Skidmore, Creative Commons)
Joss Whedon at 2012 Comic-Con (photo: Gage Skidmore, Creative Commons)

There's a palate-cleansing quality about discovering a black-and-white oasis in a summer of in-your-face IMAX 3-D excess, and that's only a fraction of the satisfying afterglow from viewing "Much Ado About Nothing."

The Shakespearean rom-com has been transported to modern-day California for an intimate, lovingly crafted film and a reunion of Joss Whedon troupe players at the director's Santa Monica home. The result is the anti-"Great Gatsby" of 2013 summer literary movies, a delightful romp that is grounded in silliness and Elizabethan-era civility among the upper crust.

The movie was filmed last summer, during what was supposed to be the director's post-"Avengers" vacation break. There are no superheroes or gods, no explosions or epic battles to go with the Whedon name. For fireworks, there's the volatile coupling of Benedick and Beatrice, as they do verbal battle before giving in to their obvious attraction.

In adapting the comedy, Mr. Whedon trimmed and tweaked the text here and there, so that the movie comes in just under two hours before the credits. He also seized on the play's relatively intimate setting -- the estate and grounds of Leonato (Clark Gregg), who has been appointed to host Don Pedro (Reed Diamond) and his entourage as they return from a successful battlefield campaign, although it's not clear where there might have been fighting with minimum casualties. The cast is pulled from projects the writer/director is best known for, such as TV's "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," "Dollhouse" and "Firefly." Mr. Gregg's Agent Colson hopped onboard from "The Avengers" film, while Nathan Fillion of "Firefly" fame has a grand ol' time as Dogberry, a security officer who is more jest than just.

They all make much ado about that "nothing" of the title -- love -- and the air is thick with it.

To sum up the comings and goings, Count Claudio (Fran Kranz) and Leonato's daughter, Hero (Jillian Morgese), are ready to declare their affections, while Benedick (Alexis Denisof) and Beatrice (Amy Acker) relish the sparring that fuels their love-hate relationship. A fly in the romantic soup is the conniving Don John (Sean Maher) and his co-conspirators (Spencer Treat Clark and Riki Lindhome).

Mr. Whedon adds a little background to the Benedick-Beatrice feud with a wordless opening scene, before they confront one another in the present. The actors are well-acquainted: He was Wesley on "Buffy" before moving on to the spinoff "Angel," where he had a passionate but brief relationship with Fred, the fragile genius played by Ms. Acker.

Mr. Denisof has a look that reads aristocratic, the better to highlight Benedick's egocentricity and a counterpoint when he is besotted. Ms. Acker's Beatrice is more than his equal. The actress shoulders a strength of conviction as well-born Beatrice and delivers Shakespeare -- including some of the Bard's best insults -- with a natural grace that seems native to the text.

Mr. Kranz, who made his Broadway debut last year in "Death of a Salesman," showed his range in Mr. Whedon's "Cabin in the Woods" and gets to do so again here. His love for Hero is subject to dastardly interruptions by Mr. Maher's Don John, who exudes a smooth menace. (If his cohort Borachio seems familiar, it might be because Mr. Clark, now 25, in 2000 played Lucius, heir to the throne in "Gladiator.") Mr. Fillion's small but memorable role as the pompous Dogberry, stumbling along with his diminutive partner, Tom Lenk, is a hoot.

In scope and spirit, the film tends toward Woody Allen's "A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy," although that full-color lark reveled in touches of magic realism. "Much Ado's" magic is in its purity of purpose, played without glitz or special effects. The black-and-white filming is straightforward, and the musical arrangements of Shakespeare's songs are light and catchy (see if you can get "Hey Nonny Nonny" out of your head). The house and grounds add a comforting, familial vibe to the proceedings -- two male guests are given a room that features a stack of stuffed animals and a dollhouse packed with Barbies.

Mr. Whedon has opened wide the doors of his home to pay homage to his favorite writer, and thou art cordially invited to make much ado about it.

"Much Ado About Nothing" opens today at the Manor Theater, Squirrel Hill.

Sharon Eberson: seberson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1960.

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