It would be easy to dismiss Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing as a vanity project made for the writer/director’s loyal fanbase. He cast almost exclusively from actors whose own popularity is rooted in the Whedon oeuvre (from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to The Avengers), automatically making his black-and-white take on one of William Shakespeare’s beloved comedies a must-see reunion.
Fortunately, the art film—independently produced by Whedon and his wife Kai Cole and shot in 12 days in their Santa Monica home—might appeal to a niche audience, but it demonstrates the tireless creativity and ability to reinvigorate familiar tropes that earned Whedon fans in the first place. His contemporary take on the “hey nonny nonny” song alone earns his place in the history of Shakespeare adaptations. And Whedon’s actor friends deliver performances worthy of Shakespeare’s words, completely at ease with his syntax.
Benedick (Alexis Denisof) and Beatrice (Amy Acker) are the heart of the play, and provide the film’s best moments with a blend of real emotion and ruthless banter. Whedon allows the couple to be interesting apart as well as together, which elevates the rest of the ensemble. Whedon mostly overcomes the play’s faults, but giving a girlfriend to the transparent villain Don John (Sean Maher) fails to make him less tiresome or more comical.
Still, Whedon delivers a fresh perspective on an old script, using body language—including slapstick—and physical clues, such as the constant drinking that might make the central matchmaking scheme seem reasonable.
This is no home movie, though the modern setting seems more a necessity than a careful choice. Whedon makes the best of his resources by shooting Benedick ranting with a background of Barbies or working out during a soliloquy (this may mark the first time a Shakespearean character has done lunges).
Unfortunately, Whedon also built in some modern—and gratuitous—departures that earned the movie its PG-13 rating, such as characters smoking a joint and in bed (the sexual content is mostly implicit, but not subtle).