Much Ado About Nothing

(2013) *** 1/2 Pg-13
107 min. Roadside Attractions. Director: Joss Whedon. Cast: Amy Acker, Alexis Denisof, Clark Gregg, Fran Kranz, Nathan Fillion, Reed Diamond, Jillian Morgese, Sean Maher, Spencer Treat Clark.

/content/films/4514/1.jpgWhen you have material on the order of William Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing, the trick is, essentially, not to screw it up. Easier said than done of course: there is no greater hell than sitting through poorly acted and directed Shakespeare. With a low-key concept and a troupe of likeable performers, Joss Whedon delivers a take on Much Ado that's the equivalent of a breezy, if disposable, Shakespeare in the Park production.

So this micro-indie version of the prototypical romantic comedy doesn't screw it up, despite being shot in a mere twelve days at the director's home. It helps that the director is a certified lover of language, eager for some meaty material during a post-production break from work on the smash blockbuster The Avengers. We all know how that worked out, to the tune of more than $1.5 billion in worldwide box office. Though Much Ado About Nothing won't be pulling in those kinds of numbers, it's sure to make a tidy profit.

To quote another Shakespeare comedy," "No profit grows where is no pleasure ta'en," and it's clear Whedon and pals had a good time making this third big-screen adaptation of the play. Setting aside the 1913 silent film, Shakespeare-on-film buffs will inevitably compare Whedon's version with Kenneth Branagh's well-liked 1993 film. This likelihood explains Whedon's reactionary style. Where Branagh had horses and swords and lutes, Whedon's modern-dress version has cars and guns and guitars. Where Branagh romped colorfully under the Tuscan sun, Whedon coolly trips through shadows using black-and-white photography.

These are canny choices, of course, as the Branagh version isn't going anywhere, so there's no point competing with it. The game is to bring something new to the table. Branagh's approach to bringing Shakespeare to the people was all about high decibels and high energy, with a classically informed approach to the text. Whedon goes for a kind of radical naturalism, an understated approach that suggests the characters could be your friends and neighbors. If the result sometimes plays like a two-part episode of a family dramedy, it also allows for a largely distraction-free look at the play's human-behavioral roots.

Some of Branagh's bolder casting choices flopped (I'm looking at you, Keanu Reeves), but Whedon's company—comprised almost entirely of alumni from his TV series and films—has a unified feel. Alexis Denisof and Amy Acker play Beatrice and Benedick, the forerunners of Cheers' Sam and Diane, and Moonlighting's Dave and Maddie: they're fools for love, too busy resenting each other to notice they're mad about each other. The actors here show an easy chemistry, helped along by Whedon's casually amusing staging choices (like having Benedick preen for Beatrice while working out in a track suit); so too do the stars ably handle the Bard's third-act turn into darker territory.

With the help of ace performers like Nathan Fillion (as the malaprop-prone constable Dogberry), Whedon proves that the comedy still works as the playwright intended: when the knotty plot's untied, we feel lighter. And, happily, he's not unduly reverent with the material (as wittily played by Whedon, Claudio's "Were she an Ethiope line..." takes a knock). Like most any Shakespeare presentation, this one takes some getting used to. Give it half an hour before you decide if you like Whedon's approach; it's liable to grow on you.

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Aspect ratios: 1.78:1

Number of discs: 1

Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1

Street date: 10/8/2013

Distributor: Lionsgate Home Video

Lionsgate sends Much Ado About Nothing home in a Blu-ray + Digital HD UltraViolet special edition. The feature looks just as it's supposed to on home video, which is just as it appeared in theaters: a well-defined black and white image with slightly tricked-out contrast that makes every window and door bloom with blown-out white light. Detail is strong and there's really nothing to complain about, other than a bit of to-be-expected breakup in low-light scenes. The lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix is as humble as the requirements on it, but it clearly maximizes the source material by cleanly, clearly delivering Shakespeare's dialogue while taking advantage of the occasional musical or ambient environmental opportunity.

Lionsgate knows what Whedon fans want: Whedon and his actors talking! Here we get both a director's commentary with Joss Whedon and a commentary with Whedon and cast members Nick Kocher, Brian McElhaney, Sean Maher, Riki Lindhome, Spencer Treat Clark, Reed Diamond, Fran Kranz, Ashley Johnson, Clark Gregg, Jillian Morgese, Emma Bates, Tom Lenk, Alexis Denisof, Joss Whedon, and Romy Rosemont. Both offer wall-to-wall entertainment value, though the first one is more coherent and therefore more educational about the film, while the second is a free-for-all as friends entertain each other and us in the process.

"Much Ado About Making Nothing" (22:12, HD) is a nice featurette (in color!) which has some good interviews with Whedon and other participants.

"Bus Ado About Nothing" (6:09, HD) documents the cast and crew's bus trip to Texas for a film festival.

Rounding out the disc is a "'Sigh No More' Music Video" (2:42, HD).

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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