When one of Shakespeare’s plays is done right, it reminds you why his works have survived four centuries and counting. When done wrong — or indifferently, as with Joss Whedon’s self-consciously twee take on Much Ado About Nothing — you feel every tedious second of it.
On the surface it seems like a good fit for the Avengers writer-director: It’s a robust comedy with strong female characters and an ensemble cast of quirky characters, all of which plays to Whedon’s strengths; in practice, it’s a limp adaptation that briefly amuses but falls short of bringing the Bard’s story to life.
The begins with a quick flashback, wherein Benedick (Alexis Denisof) skips out on Beatrice (Amy Acker) after a night of passion. The two encounter each other again some time later at the home of Beatrice’s uncle, Leonato (Clark Gregg), during a reception for Benedick’s employer, Don Pedro (Reed Diamond). The don arranges for his associate Claudio (Fran Kranz) to wed Leonato’s daughter, Hero (Jillian Morgese). He and Leonato also scheme to bring Benedick and Beatrice together as well, mainly to relieve their boredom.
Meanwhile, Don Pedro’s illegitimate brother Don John (Sean Maher), being a self-described villain, contrives to have Claudio believe that Hero has been with another man. Duels, misunderstandings, and Elizabethan wackiness ensues.
Whedon transfers the setting from Messina, Spain circa 1599, to modern-day Santa Monica, California, using his own estate as the primary location. That, combined with shooting in digital black-and-white and the barest of bare-bones budgets, results in a look and feel that is more amateurish than it is minimalist. He makes a few things work, however, such as re-inventing constable Dogberry (Nathan Fillion in a bizarre fake paunch) and his men as comically hard-boiled cops.
While there is a modicum of chemistry among the cast, there is a distinct lack of emotional engagement from them and the director. Whedon never really seems to connect with the material, and his approach to witty banter doesn’t mesh with Shakespeare’s dialogue, making for some truly awkward exchanges. The overall outcome is like cheap champagne — effervescent but disappointing.