When Baz Luhrmann sprinkled his anachronistic fairy dust all over F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, some literary purists collapsed onto fainting couches from which they still haven’t managed to rise. Now along comes Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing, a revamped take on another English syllabus classic but one that, happily, shouldn’t require anyone to reach for the nearest vial of smelling salts.
William Shakespeare’s plays have been reinvented so many times by so many people—including once, for the record, by Baz Luhrmann—that it’s hard to imagine anyone getting irked by another remix. But it’s especially difficult to conceive of a strong objection to Whedon’s energetic, wryly funny, and respectably DIY take on this revered comedy of nonstop romantic errors.
The creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and director of last summer’s mega-blockbuster, The Avengers, shot his Ado in just 12 days, at his California home, with a cast of actors plucked from various corners of his vast Whedonverse. As a recent New York Times story noted, several of those cast members—who worked with the filmmaker/producer on projects like Buffy and The Avengers, as well as TV shows Firefly, Angel, and Dollhouse—often have gathered at that same Whedon residence to participate in casual readings of the Bard’s work.
That may explain the palpable sense of camaraderie and fun that pervades the film; it’s as if Whedon and his friends decided to throw yet another Shakespeare party, but this time, they invited everyone in the multiplex to come, too. Indeed, when Don Pedro, Claudio, and company cook up the story’s central, manipulative scheme—a deceitful plot designed to send the sparring Benedick (Alexis Denisof) and Beatrice (a perfectly tart-tongued Amy Acker) into each other’s arms—the members of the ensemble exude a gleeful anticipation that provides one of the most infectious moments of the summer movie season so far. (Also helping to amp up Much Ado adoration levels: Nathan Fillion, who malaprops his way through his role as Dogberry with an impressive commitment to conveying cluelessness.)
Whedon manages to remain faithful in both language and spirit to the source material, yet adds sufficient subtle contemporary tweaks to keep things modern and accessible. This may be the only version of Much Ado About Nothing in which Leonato carries on a conversation over the sounds of an iPod, or Benedick delivers a soliloquy while wearing sweatpants. The gorgeously lush black-and-white cinematography visually bridges that gap between old and new, making the film look simultaneously classic and as current as a Walden-filtered photo snapped yesterday on Instagram.
During a movie season that lavishes attention on the loudest, brashest box office tentpoles, there is something affirming about seeing a film like Much Ado About Nothing. Its existence suggests there is room in the summertime for both well-acted labors of indie love and superheroic adventure. And it also tells us that sometimes, we are fortunate enough to encounter filmmakers capable of capturing the excitement and beauty of both.