The last major film based on a Shakespeare play was Ralph Fiennes' "Coriolanus." A tough, gritty movie about war and political turmoil, it was set in modern times with violent battle scenes and CNN-style news commentary.
Now comes Joss Whedon's "Much Ado About Nothing." Filmed in black-and-white on a low budget over the course of 12 days at Whedon's own house, it's a breezy, joyous romantic comedy with a totally different vibe.
The two films again illustrate how Shakespeare's 400-year-old works continue to be reinterpreted, adapted and updated with amazing new results.
But "Much Ado About Nothing" also shows the versatility of Whedon, whose last movie, the exponentially more expensive "The Avengers," was one of 2012's most entertaining movies.
"Much Ado About Nothing" takes place on a lovely estate. Romance is in the air among the guests. Unfortunately, in this play, "some Cupid kills with arrows, some with traps."
Claudio (Fran Kranz) falls for Hero (Jillian Morgese). At a masquerade ball, Don Pedro (Reed Diamond) pretends to be Claudio and wins Hero for him.
Meanwhile, longtime enemies Benedick (Alexis Denisof) and Beatrice (Amy Acker) snap at each other every time they get the chance. But Don Pedro and his friends have an idea: They gossip about how Benedick and Beatrice truly love each other, hoping to be overheard, and their plan works. Soon Benedick and Beatrice are clumsily swooning over each other.
Trouble comes when a rumor about Hero's infidelity breaks up Claudio and Hero's impending nuptials. Everyone is so distraught, even Beatrice issues Benedick a terrible ultimatum.
In contrast to Kenneth Branagh's 1993 adaptation of "Much Ado," in full color with an all-star cast (and a tad overcooked), Whedon's version is so beautifully streamlined and balanced, it may be the most accessible of all Shakespeare movies.
Whedon generates genuine belly laughs with his clever staging, and the actors smooth over the cutesy parts of the play with wry winks. Nathan Fillion (from Whedon's "Firefly" TV series and "Serenity" movie) as Dogberry, a pompous but clueless cop, is especially funny.
Most of the actors are veterans of Whedon's TV shows or movies. They also have been regular attendees of Shakespeare readings at Whedon's house for more than a decade.
Indeed, everyone in "Much Ado About Nothing" is perfectly relaxed and at home — so much so that viewers, both experienced Shakespeare lovers and amateurs, will be too.
REVIEWMuch Ado About Nothing
Starring Amy Acker, Alexis Denisof, Nathan Fillion, Clark Gregg
Written and directed by Joss Whedon
Running time 1 hour, 47 minutes