It must be nice to have friends like Joss Whedon’s. The creator of the cult TV series “Angel,” “Firefly” and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” has made it a practice to invite actors he worked with for Sunday brunch at his Santa Monica home, during which they would act out a Shakespeare play of Whedon’s choosing.
Then one day Whedon decided to film one of the plays, casting it with all his thespian buddies, and using his beautiful house and the Santa Monica Mountains as the setting.
The result is this delightful rendering of one of the Bard’s most accessible, and most idiotic, plays.
I say idiotic, because like a lot of Shakespeare’s comedies, the plot of “Much Ado About Nothing” is stupid and nearly irrelevant. But the verbal bantering is sublime, particularly when it’s coming from the mouths of Beatrice (Amy Acker) and Benedick (Alexis Denisof), the sparring duo who are obviously hot for each other but don’t realize it until the play is almost over.
Everything else, including the plot by the evil Don John (Sean Maher) to break up the impending marriage of Claudio (Fran Kranz) and Hero (Jillian Morgese), is just so much background to the main battle of the sexes.
“Much Ado About Nothing” has been filmed before in a more traditional 1993 production directed by and starring Kenneth Branagh, with Emma Thompson an absolutely radiant Beatrice. This version isn’t as glossy as that one, which was filmed in Tuscany. But for sheer entertainment value, Whedon’s version is about as good as Shakespearean cinema gets.
But Whedon’s take on “Much Ado About Nothing,” which is shot in luminous black and white, is initially a bit off-putting. The contemporary setting doesn’t immediately jibe with the flowery language, especially when various characters refer to each other with honorific titles from the play’s 16th century origins.
Yet once you go with the flow of the verbiage, you start to ignore the anachronisms, and begin to enjoy the humor, style and fine acting.
The director goes for the farcical elements of the work – there are even a few pratfalls – which might offend purists, but seem to be in keeping with the play’s populist appeal. After all, if it worked with the audiences at the Globe, there’s no reason it can’t play in the local multiplex.
Chief among the film’s many delights is Amy Acker as Beatrice, who attacks her sexy-woman-with-a-mouth-on-her role with ferocity. She’s matched by Alexis Denisof’s Benedick, who sometimes seems to be no match for the sarcastic woman, but ultimately proves he’s no fool.
And if you’re interested in the ultimate portrait of pompous idiocy, you need look no further than Nathan Fillion’s night constable, Dogberry, whose incompetence and malapropisms are high points of the film.
Think of this as Shakespeare, sitcom style. And that’s not damning with faint praise.
Whedon has contemporized what is essentially highbrow slapstick and made it absolutely irresistible summer fare.