Joss Whedon seems to be a man who does not understand the concept of downtime. Once shooting wrapped on his wildly ambitious The Avengers, the writer-director was contractually obligated to take a week off before diving into the post-production on the sprawling superhero ensemble piece. But instead of kicking back, Whedon gathered together another ensemble—mostly made up of actors from his various television outings—to make a short and sweet movie out of William Shakespeare's play Much Ado About Nothing. Made in just 12 days, the black-and-white film features the original text in a contemporary setting and is infused with the kind of enthusiasm you'd expect from a Whedon pet project. But its spontaneity does have some drawbacks.
Alexis Denisof (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) and Amy Acker (Cabin in the Woods) star as the romantic comedy's battling leads Benedick and Beatrice, who share a sharp wit and a mutual love-hate relationship. But when her family hosts Benedick and his band of brothers, their friends throw them together to spur love to bloom. Meanwhile, hopeful young lovers Claudio (Cabin in the Woods' Fran Kranz) and Hero (newcomer Jillian Morgese) find their own love story disrupted by scandals caused by the good Don Pedro's (Dollhouse's Reed Diamond) evil brother Don John (Firefly's Sean Maher). Also joining the fun and fray are Buffy's Tom Lenk and Firefly's Nathan Fillion as comically dumb cops, The Avengers' Clark Gregg as Hero's temperamental father, and comedienne Riki Lindhome as Don Jon's deceitful Girl Friday.
Devotees of the Whedonverse are surely chomping at the bit for his latest effort, and likely won't be disappointed. It's fun seeing his familiar crew of performers playing with Shakespeare, and imaging yourself in attendance at one of Whedon's private parties, where the famous people you crush on gather to drink and read plays aloud. (Swoon!) There's an earnestness and energy that exudes from the film, and makes it a joy to watch. However, the overall execution is less than spectacular.
The cinematography is functional, but not artful. The blocking feels nonsensical, sometimes distractingly so, as characters meander with unclear purpose around the lovely California home (Whedon's own) where all this mischief unfolds. Sometimes, a scene's staging seems like an idea that didn't pan out, but didn't merit a reshoot (a scene set in a clearly shallow pool makes for a particularly jarring moment). Likewise, the art design lacks Whedon's usual sense of flair, with characters cloaked in ill-fitting suits and dull dresses. Attempts at grandeur (close-ups on delicate table settings and maids prepping flowers) suggest an attempt at scope this low-budget feature can't quite pull off. Basically, it feels like a movie Whedon shot in 12 days. Still, Whedon with 12 days is worthwhile watching.
This comedy is undeniably charming, in no small part because of its cast. Acker and Denisof exchange their Shakespearean barbs with a bravado and glee that makes them fun to watch, even if their chemistry never quite feels erotic. Fillion and Lenk are well paired in their roles as easily puzzled comic relief, and spark a welcomed levity to the narrative's bleaker moments. For his part, Gregg brings a radiant warmth—and later chilling rage—to the role of Leonato, further proving he should be in just about everything. But it's Kranz who proves the movie's true standout.
Claudio is a tricky role, as he is a soldier who turns from eager, lovesick boy to slut-shaming wrathful brute on a dime. But Kranz manages the turn with aplomb. His bright grin makes him adorable in the film's first act, and his steely scorn makes the pivotal wedding scene profoundly heartbreaking. Between this film and Cabin in the Woods it seems Whedon is trying to convince the world that Kranz is a viable and crush-worthy romantic lead. It might be too soon to speak for the world, but he has at least convinced this critic.
Much Ado About Nothing is a joyful romp and noble experiment. There are times where its spontaneity leads to clunky compositions or awkward execution, but the shared charisma of its mostly terrific cast and the bubbly barbs of Shakespeare blend to make an intoxicating treat nicely suited to summer. Whedon has a special skill for marrying lightheartedness to dark matter, and so it in that sense Much Ado About Nothing seemed a perfect play for him to tackle. It's just a shame he didn't have a bit more time and/or money behind it to make it something truly stupendous.