If you yearn for an old-school Hollywood romantic comedy, a new screen version of Much Ado About Nothing is reason to celebrate. When Shakespeare created the fast-talking Benedick and Beatrice, he practically wrote the template for the screwball setup of a gent and a dame who spar playfully (and sometimes angrily) to hide their true feelings for each other. Recent rom coms have tried to capture that love-hate magic with less verbiage and more wacky setpieces, to no avail.
Granted, fans of the Bard may be leery of a Shakespeare adaptation directed by the creator of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” But, while Joss Whedon may not have a theater pedigree, his fans know he loves wordplay — and classic comedy. The filmmaker is known for gathering his favorite actors for chamber readings of Shakespeare.
Shot in 12 days at Whedon’s Santa Monica home, Much Ado is essentially a more elaborate version of those parties to which the public is invited. Its setting is the present, but its crisp black-and-white photography, sunny locale, music and some of the costumes evoke the screwball era. None of the actors are particularly well known outside Whedon fandom — with the possible exception of Nathan Fillion, star of “Castle” — but most show themselves remarkably capable of taking on Shakespeare’s text.
While that text hasn’t been changed, only abridged, Whedon has used nonverbal choices to interpret and, at times, modernize it. He’s added slapstick and sex: Extreme purists may not be happy with the sight of henchman Conrade (now played by a woman, Riki Lindhome) making out with evil Don John (Sean Maher) while they plot revenge on the latter’s brother, Don Pedro (Reed Diamond).
A similar choice adds another layer to the “merry war” between Beatrice and Benedick (Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof): They’re shown in bed together before the play proper begins. This time around, in short, Benedick’s oft-proclaimed disdain for marriage is actually a failure to commit. When he returns after his early-a.m. exit to pay court to Beatrice’s uncle Leonato, governor of Messina (Clark Gregg), Beatrice’s mockery has an extra edge.
Acker does full justice to the role, whether she’s playing sparkling hostess, melancholy lover or enraged defender of her cousin, Hero (Jillian Morgese). Her transparent face and intelligent delivery elucidate the text whenever Shakespeare’s verbal ingenuity threatens to lose the viewer. Denisof also acquits himself well, though he’s defter with the physical comedy than the words.
The interpretation of Beatrice and Benedick’s relationship as sexual makes perfect sense in modern terms. But it causes implicit textual problems with the play’s other plot thread, in which Claudio (Fran Kranz) spurns Hero at the altar for the high crime of having (he mistakenly believes) relinquished her virginity to someone else.
This crisis is an awkward moment in modern productions — the point where the comedy curdles into a potential tragedy that, to us, may seem far too avoidable. Kranz saves it by playing Claudio not as a self-righteous prude but as a floundering, insecure lover who feels like he is the spurned one. Likewise, Gregg manages to make Leonato’s paternal rage at Hero believable without losing the audience’s sympathy.
The broad comic subplot starring malapropism-prone Constable Dogberry — one of fiction’s worst cops — has the potential to get old fast. But the bumptious Fillion and Tom Lenk, as his frustrated sidekick, have a sly chemistry of contrasts that keeps it funny.
The movie brings to life a high-toned summer dreamland of clinking glasses, gauzy dresses, uniformed servants and hired trapeze artists — a place that exists in a dimensional rift between the Renaissance, the era of My Man Godfrey and now. It’s silly and delicious in equal parts, and it shows that Shakespeare’s “paper bullets of the brain” still hit their mark.