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Critic’s Pick: ‘Much Ado About Nothing’

The Reel Breakdown

Critic’s Pick: ‘Much Ado About Nothing’

Amy Acker in Joss Whedon's 'Much Ado About Nothing'. Photo courtesy of Roadside Attractions.

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Somewhere on the road between “The Avengers” and the new TV spinoff “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.,” Joss Whedon gathered his merry tribe of players for a little sumthin’ sumthin’ Shakespeare comedy. He shed CGI, superheroes and vampires in favor of elegantly stripped-down storytelling. The resulting take on the thorny love story of sharp-tongued Benedick and Beatrice (Alexis Denisof and Amy Acker of “Angel” and more), who spar until they wed, flows with L.A. cool served in crystal goblets.

And unlikely as the Bard project may have seemed, the film handily accomplishes what Whedon's legion of hardcore fans already know: Joss can do anything.

[Related: Critic's Pick – 'Before Midnight']

The project developed a little like a Mickey Rooney – Judy Garland production: my uncle has a barn, my aunt can sew costumes, and we can sing. In Whedon’s case, Shakespeare happened to have written a timeless comedy about opposites attracting. Whedon and his wife, producer Kai Cole, had a beautiful Hollywood villa in a Mediterranean style that suited the play’s Sicilian location. And Shakespeare-lover Whedon itched to direct with a microbudget and no pesky studio execs leaning over his shoulder.

And the twist? Shoot it in black-and-white, because what doesn’t look more classic than old school contrasts tempered by shades of gray?

Part of the fun is watching the Whedon wonders cut loose: “The Avengers” series co-star Clark Gregg aka Agent Phil Coulson plays the patriarch Leonato with a genial hospitality tempered by the concerns of a father marrying off his only daughter, Hero (Jillian Morgese), cousin to Beatrice and fiancé of Claudio (Fran Kranz). And then there’s Whedon’s TV superstar – Nathan Fillion of “Firefly” and the cult classic “Dr. Horrible’s Sing Along Blog” stealing scenes with broadly comic moments. He plays Dogberry, a cop trying to be taken seriously when every line he speaks a malapropism. As the woman sitting nearby me said afterwards: now I’m going to start watching “Castle.”

Sure, I remain nostalgic for the benchmark pairing of Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson in the 1993 version directed by Branagh – who went on to helm “Thor!” (The Shakespeare/Marvel Axis is growing strong!) And the winey truths of the L.A. bourgeoisie, while wholly enjoyable, don’t necessarily take Shakespeare’s joyful comedy with darker undertones anywhere new.

[Related: Joss Whedon Decompresses from ‘The Avengers’ with ‘Much Ado About Nothing’]

Still, “Much Ado About Nothing” plays like a good party with close friends, more familiar than fresh, but no less amusing for that. Whedon uses Shakespeare to remind audiences that the problems that existed in the seventeenth century remain relevant – and they tend to be embedded in the human heart and expressed with tongues at times sharp, or silvery, or sly...

Bottom Line: there's much a-doing in Whedon’s sexy Shakespeare.

See the theatrical trailer for Joss Whedon's "Much Ado About Nothing"...