Did you ever get your friends together as teenagers and do play readings, or shoot little movies? Did you ever think how fun it would be to do it for real? Odds are even if you did film that movie or stage that play at your house on the fly, it probably didn't turn out that well, since for most people good movies require intensive planning and a budget. But most people aren't Joss Whedon, who stepped from the enormous set of The Avengers to film a 10-day, black and white version of Much Ado About Nothing at his own house-- and, because he's Joss Whedon, actually made it an engaging and very funny adaptation of the William Shakespeare classic, which has premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Like many of Shakespeare's comedies, Much Ado takes place at a single country home and is largely about people stumbling their way toward falling in love, so the low budget and single location only add to the film's cozy vibe. The film's stars and standouts are Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof as Beatrice and Benedick, who we see in a brief prologue sharing an awkward morning-after in her bed, and who spend the early parts of the film wittily proclaiming that they'll never marry anyone, much less each other. They may very well be the original romantic comedy couple to start off loathing each other, and two are are completely winning their parts, with Acker especially tossing off one Shakespearean insult after another and sounding every bit the coolest girl in the room.

With Beatrice and Benedick teasing each other, and only falling in love thanks to some meddling from their family and friends, the main plot revolves around the lovestruck Claudio (Cabin in the Woods standout Fran Kranz) and dewy Hero (Jillian Morgese), who love each other absolutely and purely. Both of them are pretty dopey by modern standards, or even compared to the sharp-tongued Beatrice and Benedick, but Kranz brings real power both to Claudio's love and later on his anger; Morgese, making her feature acting debut, is pretty swell too. Other standouts in the cast include Clark Gregg as Hero's loving father Leonato, and especially Nathan Fillion as the bumbling detective Dogberry, who arrives late in the film and provides a much-needed jolt of humor as wrongs are righted and the lovers, as in all Shakespeare comedies, can finally be married.

The key to filming a low-budget Shakespeare adaptation like this seems mostly to be "don't screw up the text," and Whedon complies both by casting actors who know their way around the language and keeping both the staging and the camera pretty simple. Benedick adds in some silly calisthenics to impress Beatrice, and both of them engage in some excellent slapstick while eavesdropping on their friends, but Whedon largely goes easy on extra hand motions or movements to falsely liven up or explain the words. A handful of musical moments-- with songs written by Whedon himself-- liven up transitions and make for a very fun party, but the score also stays pretty low key-- Shakespeare fanatics will probably nod approvingly seeing that the text has been placed front and center here.

Much Ado About Nothing has been picked up for distribution by Lionsgate Entertainment, who also released the Whedon-produced Cabin in the Woods and likely know just how much cash they can wring from the legions of Whedon faithful. I'm not sure anyone beyond the hardcore Whedonites and Shakespeare-ites will line up, but I"m neither, really, and loved a chance to see Whedon's familiar humor strained through a story from centuries ago, updated a little but not too much (the plot diversion about Hero's honor and virginity remains awkwardly intact). A few years ago Much Ado About Nothing might have emerged from out of nowhere on the Internet, another Whedon curio for his fans to latch on to and preach about to the rest of us. Now, in this post-Avengers era, it will be released for all of us-- but its down-to-earth earnestness and sharp humor makes it no more difficult to love.

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