Saturday, December 16, 2017
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Review: Joss Whedon mixes old, new in 'Much Ado About Nothing'

Much Ado About Nothing (PG-13) (107 min.) — Hey, Joss Whedon, you just unleashed upon the world The Avengers, the third-highest grossing movie of all time. What're you going to do now, go to Disney World?

Not even close. Faced with all the opportunities his share of $1.5 billion brought last year, Whedon decided to spend a little time at home with friends, taking their occasional dinner party entertainment to a new level. Whedon and his wife, Kai Cole, often lead guests through readings of William Shakespeare's plays but this time they spent 12 days making a movie as different from the The Avengers as possible.

Much Ado About Nothing is regarded as the Bard's most amusing play, thus keeping Whedon's lark entertaining even when it artistically amounts to nothing. It's interesting to see Shakespeare's work reimagined in centuries-later style — Ian McKellen's Richard III or Ethan Hawke's Hamlet, for example — and this movie, filmed in black and white, is no exception.

Whedon's Santa Monica, Calif., mansion with its beautiful grounds is a ready set for beautiful people in tailored suits and gowns to spiel Elizabethan wit. Fist bumps replacing handshakes and an iPod replacing lutes for background music are clever touches not calling undue attention to themselves. Hearing the poem Hey nonny, nonny performed as sultry piano jazz is a kick. Much Ado About Nothing is simply a fun time among Whedon and his friends, and for the most part it's contagious.

The play is a romantic farce centered on two affairs. It's love at first sight for Claudio (Fran Kranz) and Hero (Jillian Morgese), who'll soon be married if the interloping Don John (Sean Maher) doesn't split them apart. Quite the opposite is the relationship between Beatrice (Amy Acker) and Benedick (Alexis Denisof), who carp at each other with screwball venom, swearing they don't have feelings for each other until they do.

Whedon keeps the dialogue faithful to Shakespeare's text, which means modern ears may require time to tune into the cadence and vocabulary. The cast is an appealing bunch, relatively unknown except for Clark Gregg (the SHIELD agent who isn't Sam Jackson in The Avengers) and Nathan Fillion of Whedon's sci-fi cult hit Firefly. Acker is the lone performer inspiring a sense of discovery, with better things ahead.

Much Ado About Nothing opens Friday at Tampa Theatre. B+

Steve Persall, Times movie critic

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