Much Ado About Nothing

Opens Friday

Much Ado About Nothing, Shakespeare’s romantic battle of wits, is the template for pretty much every Hollywood romcom: The feuding lovers, supportive pals and sabotaging frenemies are instantly recognizable.

Joss Whedon’s vanity project/summer tent-pole detox, filmed in black and white, in his own Santa Monica house over the course of two weeks with a bunch of his actor friends in midst of The Avengers shooting schedule, should be a disaster. Instead, it is intimate, casual and sexy. Set at a tipsy California house party, there may be coat and tie instead of princely raiment, but the backstabbing is all too familiar in this Hollywood-ish setting.

The update carries all the hallmarks of Whedon’s trademark playful slyness: Verse is recited in a repurposed child’s bedroom, in front of Barbie’s Dreamhouse, and there’s always a bottle of wine and plate of canapés handy to keep the conversation flowing. Whedon veterans Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof are charming as Beatrice and Benedick, while the comic turn of Nathan Fillion (Firefly) as Constable Dogberry becomes a parody of the TV police procedural.

But the real strength of Whedon’s version are the actors playing the parts that are usually overlooked, Clark Gregg as Leonato, Fran Kranz as Claudio and the mild-mannered Sean Maher as the evil Don John. The ensemble speaks in an understated, conversational way, and one immediately become accustomed to the archaic rhythms and vocabulary of dialogue penned more than 400 years ago. This flippantly delightful film should be shared with every high school literature class, in spite of a bit of groping and weed smoking.

This article appeared in print with the headline “Little criminals.”