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Whedon’s version of ‘Much Ado’ not much more than friends having fun together

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Joss Whedon, for some strange reason, chose to adapt Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing and shoot it at his own house. Whatever.

Three stars

Much Ado About Nothing Amy Acker, Alexis Denisof, Clark Gregg. Directed by Joss Whedon. Rated PG-13. Opens Friday.

Much Ado About Nothing gets filed among Shakespeare’s comedies, and that’s not wrong—it ends happily, with all lovers reunited, and there’s scathing wit aplenty. But it’s a comedy with a dark side, and the most surprising thing about Joss Whedon’s film adaptation—shot at his own house in Santa Monica over a couple of weeks, using the same company of actors he’s worked with on TV—is that its verbal jousting is less satisfying than its old-fashioned melodrama. Amy Acker makes as delightful a Beatrice as you’d expect, but she needed an equally impassioned Benedick, and her Angel co-star Alexis Denisof is just too diffident to create real sparks. On the other hand, Fran Kranz, who turned out to be the secret weapon of Whedon’s little-watched series Dollhouse, makes poor, duped Claudio a genuinely tragic figure, erasing all memory of Robert Sean Leonard’s callow performance in the 1993 Kenneth Branagh version.

Given that the previous film exists in fairly recent memory, was there any particular need for this one? Not really. Whedon has no particular take on the play, and his only significant departure—casting a woman, Riki Lindhome, as one of Don John’s minions, thereby allowing for some weird sexual undercurrents in an otherwise expository scene—is a distraction. And the movie does largely feel like a group of friends having fun together, in the enthused tradition of “and we can use the barn as a stage!” But there’s a lot to be said for enthusiasm, and very little to be said against one of Shakespeare’s best plays.

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