For years Joss Whedon has talked about the Shakespeare readings he'd hold at his house – where actors from his many television shows would come together and read the Bard. After one particular mix featuring Angel stars Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof, Whedon decided to morph his literary parties into a homegrown feature film. The result, Much Ado About Nothing, is precisely as one would expect – the world of Whedon retold through a Shakespearian format. It's not so much about old Will, but the Whedonverse playing in old tongues.
Using aspects of his other plays (the fierce woman of Taming of the Shrew, the faked death of Romeo and Juliet), Shakespeare's comedy follows the mess that descends when the Prince (Reed Diamond) and his entourage visit the house of the governor of Messina (Clark Gregg). Love turns the house upside down as the Prince's companion, Claudio (Fran Kranz), falls for the governor's daughter, Hero (Jillian Morgese). The Prince and his men plot to make Claudio happy, while also manipulating fellow companion Benedick (Denisof) into loving the woman he incessantly bickers with, Hero's cousin Beatrice (Acker). Unfortunately, Claudio's affections are also manipulated – by the Prince's bastard brother and troublemaker Don John (Sean Maher). He convinces Claudio of a false infidelity, which, in turn, prompts Claudio to publicly humiliate Hero and leave her at the altar, sending the group into an uproar desperate to be fixed.
As an adaptation, Whedon rather aptly funnels the dense play into a quickly paced story, the black-and-white footage masking the quickly compiled nature of the piece – a passion project shot in only 12 handheld days in the director's own home. But this isn't about Shakespeare. Though the words are the Bard's, the play is mostly a vehicle to revisit many of Whedon's most popular character types. If all of Whedon's shows were one, this would be the special "Shakespeare" episode.
Acker and Denisof shine brightest, the chemistry that made the Angel finale so bittersweet helping to elevate this adaptation to higher, universal levels. Denisof has always found a goofy charm in the most slapstick moments, while Acker simply shines when she's allowed an undercurrent of power, absolutely relishing the character's notable "If I were a man" speech. Maher is once again the insider, Diamond the higher-up power type, and Kranz the lovable and quirky cohort. Ashley Johnson again steals scenes in simplicity, moving up from her waitress gig in The Avengers (and far out of her long-ago breakout as Chrissy Seaver in Growing Pains). And of course, one can't forget Nathan Fillion and Tom Lenk, Whedon's goofballs who turn the local Watch into a slapstick cop duo who succeed in spite of themselves.
For Whedonites, this is greatness – a moment to watch Whedon's beloved actors come back together in real meaty roles rather than bit parts in the shadow of superstars. As a Shakespeare adaptation, however, it's crisp and bright enough for easy enjoyment, but too self-indulgent to stand out amongst the many adaptations.