With Much Ado About Nothing, Joss Whedon blurs the line between home movie and independent film with a too-saccharine mix of results. The cult director steps away from writing his own cheeky banter and tests out what happens when his friends and regulars recite Elizabethan verse, moving Shakespeare's comedic battle of the sexes from Sicily to Santa Monica, and filming it in and around his own estate. It's an adjustment that takes some getting used to, and which at first reads as blearily contrived and poorly adapted. The opening scenes, introducing sharply suited Americans nasally play-acting through talk of Princes, battles, etc, are tough to swallow. The approach has Whedon's finger-prints all over it; too self-aware, too cheeky, too playful to sit with the play's occasional dalliances with gravity. Whedonites - the sort who giggle at every grimace on Nathan Fillion's face - will love it for its homespun charm. Those hoping for the ferocity of Shakespeare's words to match up with the approach, though, may find themselves idly wondering how many members of the audience are regular patrons of the Rennaissance Faire...
Whedon's take on Much Ado is modern, but not current. Everything about the mise-en-scene and characterization suggests in a twee netherworld of snappy suits, platform wedges, expansive kitchen counters, plush toys, and masquerade parties with acrobats lithely gyrating to music that sounds like it should be sold in a Starbucks. It's like the pages of an Anthropologie catalog blended have been decoupaged with some collage of Hollywood screwball influences Whedon thought might be similar, but didn't commit to applying. Our characters are, of course, almost all houseguests on board for a booze-hounding stay of shenanigans and love matches, and this is perhaps the general reason why Whedon thought it would be fun to shoot the film with his fast-talking bit players. Because, I mean, it's only natural that a bunch of drunk people would construct a scheme to get two sworn enemies to fall in love, right? That part makes sense.
What makes slightly less sense are all the cloying little touches, like, why wouldn't you have Claudio standing idly in an infinity pool holding a martini glass with a snorkel on his face? Why wouldn't you have soliloquies set in a little girl's bedroom? What, in actuality, is the black and white adding to the film (a touch of the antiquated? It certainly doesn't work the way it does in Frances Ha)? Ultimately, the whole thing reads as a sort of "lite rock" or "adult contemporary" adaptation, the sort of thing designed for yuppies to watch at an outdoor picnic in the park while sipping on pinot grigio and cutting into wheels of brie. I'm not kidding: look around at the decor as you're watching the film. There are little goose knickknacks, laundry hampers, astonishingly tepid art fair paintings. The whole thing looks steeped in an upper middle class banality that renders the situation sort of stupid, stilted, and cheesy. Beatrice (Amy Acker, of "Angel" and "Dollhouse") and Benedick (Alexis Denisof, of a similar pedigree) are given their share of amusing moments, but their relationship feels drained and distant, nowhere close to making the most of the sharp-tongued exchanges on the page.
Frankly, it's tough to buy into Beatrice and Benedick as the ferocious independent minds they're meant to be. Here, the situation seems too obvious and immediate. Whedon doesn't seem interested in giving us a taste of their lives just off-screen, but simply makes them in to talking heads spitting claims they seem too happy about to believe. Because the tone shallowly pulls from fluffier, more contemporary rom coms instead of the material, the turn the play takes involving Hero's (Jillian Morgese) pretend death in Act IV sends the film into tedium. We're not ready for the possibility of serious consequences, and so all Whedon can do is head up the goon squad with an overcooked Nathan Fillion. The Firefly obsessives laugh, I roll my eyes and wonder why nobody's offered me any ciabatta bread or caprese salad. Which is to say: it's a likable enough adaptation, but a weak (and occasionally annoying) one that feels more like an actual home movie than perhaps it should.