Joss Whedon's bare-bones "Much Ado About Nothing" is the cinematic equivalent of Shakespeare in the parking lot - and proof, again, that it doesn't take much doing to bring Shakespeare to life.
The circumstances of this low-budget, black-and-white "Much Ado" is already well known: Whedon shot it at his Los Angeles home over just 12 days immediately after production for a slightly larger film he directed: "The Avengers." So this adaptation - a Santa Monica house party - of one of Shakespeare's great comedies arrives with perhaps a touch of smugness. It's almost surely the only time the Bard has been performed with a suburban golf course in the background.
But Whedon, the fanboy hero of cultishly adored TV shows like "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Firefly," is particularly suited to "Much Ado About Nothing," which Kenneth Branagh adapted in a 1993 film. Whedon can write some of the best banter around, so it's not surprising he feels a connection to Shakespeare's "merry war" of wit. It's fitting, too, that the same man that made a ponytailed teenager a supernatural warrior delights in a play that mocks male fears of female sexuality.
The verbal duel of "Much Ado" pits the proud bachelor Benedick (Alexis Denisof) against the quick-tongued Beatrice (Amy Acker), as they sling clever put-downs back and forth, even as they're drawn together by their scheming friends. Most of the cast (including, memorably, Nathan Fillion as the bumbling Constable Dogberry and Clark Gregg as the governor Leonato) are long-time Whedonites, veterans from his TV shows and films.
Rather than emphasize the Beatrice-Benedick sparring, Whedon's faithfully-adapted "Much Ado" is an amiable ensemble that spills around the director's spacious home (which was designed by Whedon's wife, Kai Cole, a producer on the film). It's a contemporary setting (a song sung in the play, for example, is played on an iPod), but most of the updating is minimal and consists of a whole lot of strewn-about wine glasses.
Fran Kranz plays the swooning Claudio, the suitor of Leonato's daughter, Hero (Jillian Morgese), whose wedding is sabotaged by false rumors of Hero's fidelity started by the villainous Don John (Sean Maher). But the scenario somehow lacks the biting gender commentary of the play.
One would expect Whedon, given his knack for wordplay, to highlight the verbal joisting and really chew the play's choice lines. But much of the acting doesn't make the language pop (Denisof is particularly without snap) and the wan black-and-white photography bleaches the play of its snappiness. Acker ("The Cabin in the Woods") gives a likable and lithe performance, even if its lacks the commanding presence Beatrice deserves.
More effort, it feels, went into making the play feel natural rather than to making it sing. This "Much Ado" (for which Whedon also composed the music) is perhaps best considered merely a promising but casual dress rehearsal, not a polished production.
Best here are the bits of farce, like the pratfalls and double takes of Beatrice and Benedick when they overhear rumor of the other's alleged infatuation.
The lack of polish, though, also gives Whedon's film its charm. The history of Shakespeare movie adaptations is littered with stiff productions that crack under the weight of its sacred material. That, thankfully, is definitely not an issue to Whedon's slinky, unadorned "Much Ado," which, if anything, is too light.
But despite all these quibbles, moviegoers will likely have few better options this summer for a good romantic comedy. Among the globe-trotting spectacles of Hollywood (whose ranks Whedon will rejoin, as he's writing an "Avengers" sequel), the micro-budget "Much Ado About Nothing" points a way for filmmakers to make - with cheap technology and a few talented friends - something substantial. A script by Shakespeare helps, too.
Rating: PG-13 for some sexuality and brief drug use
Running time: 109 minutes