'Much Ado About Nothing': This Shakespeare needs some fire
In the fall of 2011, Joss Whedon, the industrious soul behind Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Serenity, and The Avengers, invited a bunch of actor pals over to his Santa Monica house - a lovely house, with wrought-iron balconies and a walled garden, a pool and a kitchen island, Spanish tiles on the roof, and light streaming in the windows.
The idea was to shoot Much Ado About Nothing, Shakespeare's bubbly yarn of love and deception, and to transplant the tale from the Sicilian port town of Messina in the 15th century to the California beach town of the 21st.
The text would be as Shakespeare wrote it, the clothes of a contemporary cut (with nods to '30s Hollywood screwball romances, '40s noir, and Renaissance fancy dress), the vibe modern.
All of this, Whedon has done, in shimmering black-and-white, no less.
So why am I underwhelmed? The Bard's riddle-me-this badinage is there, the trickery and turncoating, the flirtations and false alarms, and that amusing numbskull cop, Dogberry (Nathan Fillion, wearing a shoulder holster), keen to interrogate and intervene.
Alexis Denisof and Amy Acker star as the bachelor Benedick and the bemused Beatrice, sparring and jousting and denying their love as they march headlong, rom-com style, toward matrimony. Both are perfectly adequate, but there's no fire, and where their lines should ricochet with wit, they just spill forth, affably.
The other couple central to the business, Claudio (Fran Kranz) and Hero (Jillian Morgese), have their own issues. Hero is the picture of virtue, but a smear campaign, courtesy of the dastardly Don John (a bland Sean Maher), paints her otherwise - a misunderstanding that adds comedy, and drama, to the proceedings.
Wine is consumed, cocktails tallied, and shots of tequila downed by the fistful, and soon the whole cast is sloshing around in tipsy intrigue.
So why am I underwhelmed?
Because as game as Whedon's crowd is, there are no stars here, no blazing personalities to rocket aloft, propelled by Shakespeare's jolly jive, into the firmament. Whedon and Kai Cole, his producer and wife, have hosted Shakespeare readings over the years with many of these same players. So everyone in the film appears at ease, at home - and cinematographer Jay Hunter dogs them around dutifully, all the troupe plotting and pratfalling, dodging and dancing this way and that, love in the air.
But the air is thin.
Much Ado About Nothing **1/2 (out of four stars)
Directed by Joss Whedon. With Amy Acker, Alexis Denisof, Fran Kranz, Jillian Morgese, and Clark Gregg. Distributed by Roadside Attractions/Lionsgate.
Running time: 1 hour, 47 mins.
Parent's guide: PG-13 (adult themes)
Playing at: select area theaters