Joss Whedon’s ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ is a fans-only endeavor

Alexis Denisof and Amy Acker try to make audiences forget about Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson in Joss Whedon's "Much Ado About Nothing." Credit: Elsa Guillet-Chapuis
Alexis Denisof and Amy Acker try to make audiences forget about Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson in Joss Whedon’s “Much Ado About Nothing.”
Credit: Elsa Guillet-Chapuis

‘Much Ado About Nothing’
Director: Joss Whedon
Stars: Amy Acker, Alexis Denisof
Rating: PG-13
2 (out of 5) Globes

More than most television masters, Joss Whedon commands a cultlike following. His devotees will flock en masse to anything he does, and they’re currently going gaga over his unexpected adaptation of “Much Ado About Nothing,” which is cast not with grizzled Shakespearean thespians but with vets from his shows. This crowd reportedly finds it a treat to see Whedon regulars, like Amy Acker and Fran Kranz, doing iambic pentameter, and that’s fine. Outsiders who’ve only seen a few episodes of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and casually enjoyed “Firefly” might wonder why it exists at all, much less why it’s getting select raves.

Indeed, Whedon’s “Much Ado About Nothing” — his latest project since “The Avengers,” only the third highest grossing film ever — starts off like amateur night. Whedon’s actors may be beloved among his fans, and they may have been excellent on his show. But most of them can’t do Shakespeare. Stiff performers rattle off lines as though they learned them phonetically, while Whedon shoots them in bland black-and-white, because otherwise it would look cheaper and more visually impaired than it already does.

Things settle down once the film gets into the conjured romance between headstrong Beatrice (Acker) and on-leave soldier Benedick (Alexis Denisof). There are few performers here comfortable with Shakespeare, and Denisof isn’t one of them. Acker is, as is Clark Gregg, playing moneyed patriarch Leonato. Hugely appealing, Acker almost makes the Beatrice-Benedick romance, the play’s comic and emotional centerpiece, work by sheer force of will.

Everyone else is stranded, struggling to find meaning in words they clearly don’t always understand. The scant physical comedy, particularly by Denisof, is forced and unfunny; even poor, otherwise terrific Nathan Fillion flails about as bumbling constable Dogberry. Kranz, usually a comic foil, is egregiously miscast as the moony, touchy Claudio, who’s duped into thinking his betrothed (Jillian Morgese) is not a virgin, and therefore worthy of death (such are the problems with updating an era-specific play for modern times.)

The few pleasures in Whedon’s film are strong enough to ensure it isn’t wholly worth writing off. And besides, “Much Ado About Nothing” is still “Much Ado About Nothing.” But for the most part it’s a fans-only endeavor. Those who would follow Whedon anywhere are advised to ignore these harsh words and head to the theater. The rest can take solace in knowing there’s already another “Ado” film, from 1993, that is strong enough to survive Keanu Reeves doing Shakespeare, and which features, in Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh, a Beatrice and Benedick for the ages. This is just for Whedonites.


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