Joss Whedon the man behind smartly devised popcorn fare such as "The Avengers," "The Cabin in the Woods" and the "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" TV series is one of the sharpest, wittiest writers in Hollywood.
His latest collaborator, some guy named Shakespeare, is no slouch in the banter department, either.
In "Much Ado About Nothing," director Whedon adapts William Shakespeare's feather-light comedy into a bubbly cocktail party of a movie and gives his stable of regular actors some of the Bard's meatiest dialogue on which to chew.
It begins with the arrival of Don Pedro (Reed Diamond) and his troops to the home of Leonato (Clark Gregg, from "The Avengers"). Don Pedro's lead officer, the veteran Benedick (Alexis Denisof), and young Claudio (Fran Kranz) receive a hero's welcome and, in Claudio's case, also a welcome from Hero (newcomer Jillian Morgese), Leonato's comely daughter. Claudio pines for Hero, and in no time at all the two are betrothed.
Things are more prickly for Benedick and Hero's older cousin, Beatrice (Amy Acker). The two, as Don Pedro notes, have "a merry war betwixt them" of wry insults with Benedick vowing to remain ever a bachelor and Beatrice professing joy, on behalf of womanhood, that he has.
With the wedding preparation in the works, Don Pedro, Claudio, Leonato and Hero launch a little plot to get Benedick and Beatrice to fall in love. But that's not the only plot afoot, as Don Pedro's bastard half-brother Don John (Sean Maher), in custody for his past crimes, seeks to sow seeds of discord between Claudio and Hero.
Whedon who shot this in 12 days during the post-production break after filming "The Avengers" sets the story in modern dress in a well-appointed house (in fact, his own house, designed by his wife, Kai Cole). He shot it in a smooth black-and-white that gives the whole affair the fizzy lightness of a madcap romantic comedy, in the vein of "His Girl Friday" or "Adam's Rib."
The modern approach adds to the cool humor of Shakespeare's story without detracting from the rich dialogue. For example, when Don Pedro and Claudio catch Benedick mooning over Beatrice's photo (on his iPad), they signal the success of their subterfuge with a sly fist-bump. And when Whedon brings in Dogberry (Nathan Fillion), the comic-relief constable, he's depicted in the rumpled shirt and shoulder holster of a TV cop.
The biggest delight of "Much Ado About Nothing" is the back-and-forth between Denisof and Acker. The pair, formerly co-stars on Whedon's "Buffy" spinoff "Angel," have a biting chemistry and trade Shakespeare's barbs with the verve of Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn. They also imbue Benedick and Beatrice with a tinge of regret, through wordless flashbacks that build a viable backstory to explain their animosity and underlying affection. They lead a cast who turn this "Nothing" into something really delightful.
'Much Ado About Nothing'
Joss Whedon's modern take on Shakespeare's classic is a zippy romantic comedy for the ages.
Where • Broadway Centre Cinemas.
When • Opens Friday, June 21
Rating • PG-13 for some sexuality and brief drug use.
Running time • 107 minutes.