More interesting than the frenzy of love-drunk ploys that overwhelm a party of "noble" men and women in Joss Whedon's adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing is the setting of the film: the writer-director's own sprawling Santa Monica estate. Employing every nook and cranny of the grounds, every room and patch of grass, this low-scale, scrappy production of Shakespeare's famous work is dependent almost entirely on what Whedon co-owns with his wife, producer Kai Cole, and a stable of actors who he has long-standing relationships with. Indeed, Whedon transforms Much Ado About Nothing into a kind of home movie, though one that feels primed and calculated for a wide audience, made cheaply with friends and close colleagues but devoid of the vitality and unpredictability of creative necessity.
What Whedon gets right is the grand foolishness of the Bard's robust comedy. The filmmaker brings out a sense of wild comic fury in his cast that has been utilized only to limited effect in previous incarnations of the play, and his no-frills handicam camerawork cedes the screen to the antic buffoonery. Though set in the present, the film begins in the past: a quick flashback to the morning when Benedick (Alexis Denisof) skipped out on Beatrice (Amy Acker) after a night of wine and sex. Beatrice is awake when he leaves, but says nothing, and with this, Whedon sets his hooks into Shakespeare's tale of romantic gamesmanship. Time passes and the two former lovers build up their emotional carapaces before meeting again at the home of Leonato (Clark Gregg), Beatrice's uncle, for a party celebrating the arrival of Don Pedro (Reed Diamond), who's flanked by Benedick and Claudio (Fran Kranz). It's Don Pedro who suggests that Claudio wed Hero (Jillian Morgese), Leonato's daughter, and the honored guest eventually schemes to bring Benedick and Beatrice together as well.
There's something sinister about Don Pedro and Leonata's agendas, the liberated rich making sport of delicate emotions, and the darker side of their intentions are embodied in Don Pedro's brother, Don John (Sean Maher), a self-described "plain-dealing villain" who contrives to have Claudio believe that Hero has been with another man. Duels are planned and allegiances are betrayed, but Whedon stays tonally true to the plain humor of it all. Vanity is ultimately what strikes fear into these characters, and the cast makes a lively game of dismantling the absurd superficial pretensions that guide them. The film, however, is nothing without the physicality of the performers, as Whedon's script handles the transition of Shakespeare's language to modern day indifferently, and his direction follows suit. Though reportedly a passion project, the film goes ambivalently through the motions.
Much Ado About Nothing boasts a natural intimacy, but there's no sense of what the writer-director connects personally to in Shakespeare's comedy, other than the twisty melodrama that obviously influenced his television work. The loose, black-and-white aesthetic often borders on the amateur and feels like an awkward match for the top-shelf text. So, the film relies almost entirely on the rhapsodic prose and the superb players, almost all of who have appeared in past Whedon projects. The communal ease and worn-in camaraderie of those both behind and in front of the camera is hinted at but never realized; much like Beatrice and Benedick, Whedon's intentions feel hidden under a carapace of feigned frivolity. The look of the film attests that one can even be vain in seeming modesty.