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Much Ado About Nothing

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Engaging for purists and novices alike
By Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies

Some uncharitable soul might characterize Joss Whedon's movie adaptation of one of Shakespeare's most beloved comedies "Much Ado About Nothing" a vanity project. After all, director Whedon shot it on the relative cheap, with a cast of old friends and professional associates, more or less using his house and backyard as a set. Given that Whedon is the creator of several much-beloved television series and the writer-director of the megalithic first "Avengers" movie, said house and backyard are roomy enough to actually qualify as movie sets. But given Whedon's immaculate pop-culture pedigree, someone not familiar with the particular smarts he brings to his projects (the cult TV sensation "Buffy The Vampire Slayer" among them) might wonder, what's he to Shakespeare, and Shakespeare to him?

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This labor of love doesn't put an ostentatiously Whedonesque stamp on the play so much as coax it rather gently into a modern setting, so that the audience not familiar with the Bard can better ascertain modern comedy's roots in the Elizabethan. The play is replete with big-ego guys, sly and feisty women, double and triple crosses, dire misunderstandings that result in potentially dire plot twists, and much much more. The nothing over which there's much ado concerns a wedding that will unite formerly conflicting factions (the play proper sets up love matches between Spanish and Italian nobles), and a trick designed to sow discord, wherein groom Claudio (Fran Kranz) is fooled into thinking his bride Hero (Jillian Morgese) has been messing around. Most interpretations of the play tend to focus on the playfulness of the story's second couple, Beatrice (Amy Acker) and Benedick (Alexis Denisof), characters who kind of initiated the whole romantic-comedy trope of people who profess not to be able to stand each other while in fact nursing a huge passion for union. The performers, particularly the women, bring a sunniness and ease to their depictions that float the black-and-white movie on a charming breeze. But to tell the truth, certain stretches of the movie took the slightly drowsy white-wine-at-dusk-in-early-summer vibe of the whole thing a little too far, to the extent that one could conceivably, well, nod off. Fortunately, the Claudio/Hero rift, aside from providing a plot jolt, introduces the bumbling policeman character of Dogberry, played with delightful puffed-up self-regard by Nathan Fillion, the much-beloved-by-Whedonites star of the series "Firefly" and its movie spinoff "Serenity." While there doesn't seem to be a room in Whedon's house that can credibly double as a police interrogation room, Fillion parading around any environment grandiloquently as his character fails to evince the first clue about anything cannot help but delight.

Denisof's work as Benedick, a wannabe Mercutio whose relentless sharp tongue isn't sufficient camouflage for a heart as tender as Romeo's, is also outstandingly illuminating. The entire cast, indeed, revels not just in Shakespeare's language but in the clever way this play both conforms, in its plot points, to the now-antiquated gender roles of its time but also subverts them, giving acute but not overemphatic stresses on the subversions.  It's a take on the play that purists can certainly respect, and that novices may well find seductive or at least engaging.

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J

Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.

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