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TORONTO — Fresh from saving the planet with The Avengers, Joss Whedon makes Generation Fanboy safe for the Bard in his laugh-stuffed Much Ado About Nothing; he even makes the play’s “hey nonny nonny” ditty hummable. The picture kept the crowd howling and prompted a standing ovation at Saturday’s Elgin Theater premiere, but even viewers not enlisted in Whedon’s Browncoat cult will find much to like here. Unconventional enough that it won’t unseat Kenneth Branagh‘s two-decade old version as the mainstream go-to, it should nevertheless have legs in a theatrical run.
Digitally lensed by Jay Hunter in appealing black and white, this is a present-set staging using Shakespeare’s original text. But it’s less aggressive in meshing now and then than Baz Luhrmann‘s Romeo + Juliet. Returning war heroes arrive in limos, yes, and news sometimes travels by smartphone; but after some scene-setting this sort of thing fades into the background, letting Whedon focus on how funny he finds this tale of manufactured, sabotaged and rescued-from-dead love affairs.
As the sworn bachelor Benedick, Alexis Denisof makes the most of a part ripe for self-mockery. When friends stage a conversation to make him believe his frequent verbal sparring partner Beatrice (Amy Acker) loves him deeply, Denisof goes full-tilt slapstick, tripping over himself and making pathetic attempts to hide in order to overhear every sweet word. Acker follows suit a few scenes later, with fewer pratfalls, but Denisof is engaged in a film-long campaign to earn laughs via tweaked line readings and vain poses. He almost always succeeds.
The film is peppered with extratextual but unobtrusive grace notes, from a perfectly timed dog’s bark (or spit-take) to the quizzical look lovestruck Claudio (Fran Kranz) gives when his friend offers to pretend to be him to win him the hand of sweet Hero (Jillian Morgese): That time-honored Shakespearean trope, for a split second, gets treated like the absurd contrivance that it is.
Whedon is serious about the foul plot that ruins Claudio and Hero’s wedding day — weasely Don John (Sean Maher) makes a fine villain — but he’s also fully committed to the ridiculousness of the man who accidentally uncovers it: Nathan Fillian‘s constable Dogberry and his incompetent deputies swagger through the play like junior high kids making a ’70s policier.
There’s an obvious family tree to draw from the contorted quips Benedick and Beatrice hurl at each other to the hyper-clever banter of Whedon’s own creations. But more than most adaptations, this is a film true to Shakespeare’s practice of employing all means at hand to keep the crowd entertained — even if it means getting Clark Gregg (as Leonato), that impeccably professional agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., to get drunk and shake his ass.
Production Company: Bellwether Pictures
Cast: Amy Acker, Alexis Denisof, Nathan Fillion, Fran Kranz, Jillian Morgese, Sean Maher, Clark Gregg, Reed Diamond
Director-Screenwriter-Music: Joss Whedon, based on the play by William Shakespeare
Producers: Daniel Kaminsky, Joss Whedon
Executive producers: Kai Cole
Director of photography: Jay Hunter
Production designer: Cindy Chao, Michele Yu
Costume designer: Shawna Trpcic
Editors: Daniel Kaminsky, Joss Whedon
PG, 108 minutes
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