** (out of four)
Their tongues tangled by declarations unbeknownst to them, much of the cast of Joss Whedon’s Shakespeare adaptation “Much Ado About Nothing” struggles to suggest they connect to what they’re saying.
Well, not everyone—Fran Kranz (“Cabin in the Woods”) makes the Bard’s words flow, and Nathan Fillion has fun in the role of a hapless detective. Still, working with many of his usual actors (including Fillion, Kranz, Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof), Whedon’s extreme post-”Avengers” left turn comes off not as an inspired wink to a classic but a failed experiment among friends.
For those who’ve forgotten Shakespeare’s romantic-comic play or avoided it completely: Claudio (Kranz) instantly falls in love with Hero (striking newcomer Jillian Morgese) but Don John (Sean Maher) and Borachio (Spencer Treat Clark) aim to disrupt the match. Meanwhile, Hero’s cousin Beatrice (Acker) may or may not have true feelings for Benedick (Denisof) lingering beneath her coarse outer shell. Though the setting looks like modern-day L.A.—including smart phones and fist bumps—the characters treat their interpersonal conundrums as if they’re in 16th century Italy.
Whedon’s choice to update the setting but none of the language generates an odd disconnect that makes Shakespeare’s use of ridiculous schemes (even the Friar has one!) and sneakily overheard conversations seem contrived. Take out trickery and extreme gullibility and “Much Ado About Nothing” really would have nothing. Whedon, who barely differentiates between characters of vastly different status and gets claustrophobic in limited settings, can’t make ado from language that prevents the film from getting off the ground. I much prefer the authenticity and bite of Kenneth Branagh’s 1993 adaptation.
I’m all for Shakespeare and endorse Whedon’s visions more often than not. This time, the mistaken identity is his own, and the comedy comes off as a joke only some of those involved seem to get.
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