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Much Ado About Nothing (2013)

Romantic Comedy Rated PG-13

“A skirmish of wit” is how William Shakespeare described the goings-on in his 1600 comedy, Much Ado About Nothing, and that’s also the perfect phrase for this contemporary adaptation by Joss Whedon. Filmed at Whedon’s home between principal photography and postproduction on Marvel’s The Avengers, Much Ado has the feel of an impromptu gathering with a host of sliver-tongued players. It’s high art as a refreshing summer spritzer.

Whedon retains the original language and makes the wise decision of having Clark Gregg (Coulson of The Avengers) ease us into it. Gregg plays Leonato, the wealthy father of a doting daughter, Hero (Jillian Morgese). Visiting them on their estate is the powerful Don Pedro (Reed Diamond) and Claudio (Fran Kranz), a younger companion who falls for Hero so completely that they agree to marry at the house that very week.

The heart of Much Ado About Nothing, however, concerns two other characters: Beatrice (Amy Acker), Hero’s cousin, and Benedick (Alexis Denisof), Claudio’s friend. Verbal duelists – they have a history of hectoring each other – Beatrice and Benedick harbor secret affections, even though both rail loudly against the prospect of marriage to anyone, let alone to each other. If you’ve seen His Girl Friday, just one of Much Ado’s many spiritual heirs, you know where this is going.

Much Ado has the feel of an impromptu gathering with a host of sliver-tongued players.

Good thing, then, that Acker and Denisof are up to the challenge (even if he does sound uncannily like NBC newscaster Brian Williams). Their interplay is light yet prickly, barbed without becoming bitter. It’s the mark of any good version of Much Ado About Nothing that once Beatrice and Benedick profess their love, you immediately miss their sparring. To the actors’ credit, that happens here.

For the most part, the contemporary setting allows for fun little flourishes, as when Benedick bemoans the curse of domesticity while sitting next to a dollhouse or Claudio dons a snorkeling mask for a costume party. Yet there’s also something more blatant about the privileged backdrop of this story when it’s removed from a period setting. Whedon’s house, reportedly built by his wife, is an endless spread of sunny passageways and verdant garden space, all lovingly captured in black and white. Impeccably furnished and effusively candled, it’s like a Restoration Hardware catalog come to life. Add the soft jazz on the soundtrack (also by Whedon) and never before has Shakespeare seemed so blueblood, so upscale, so …  well, white.

Even if this isn’t the most progressive take on the Shakespeare story, it still gets much of the play right (Nathan Fillion offers a definitive take on the bumbling constable Dogberry). And in his use of uniquely cinematic elements – insert shots, facial close-ups – Whedon allows the comedy to come out in ways a stage version couldn’t. Here’s hoping Whedon gets enough downtime during production on The Avengers 2 to offer his guerrilla take on Hamlet.