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Shakespeare in Like

Joss Whedon likes it best when his creations are talking a mile a minute. They banter like maniacs, energy never flagging. The Avengers' coolest moments were when everybody took a break from owning Loki so they could bicker. So it makes sense that the director decided to scoop up Shakespeare's comedy, Much Ado About Nothing, and drop it gently into the luxury backyard of a Hollywood player. And by that I mean Whedon's own backyard. He shot this at his house. In 12 days. With a bunch of friends from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly and Angel.

Skeptics might wonder about the wisdom of a group of TV actors performing Shakespeare on the cheap in somebody's fancy kitchen. And if you're classically minded on this subject you'll just be annoyed; but then you probably live in a constant state of annoyance after Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet and 10 Things I Hate About You. Just understand that Much Ado is none of those things. The words remain the same, yet the bogged-down sense of heavy reverence and over-work is gone. All the play's barbed retorts and quickly shifting allegiances move more like friendly, sarcastic game of badminton. Sometimes that fast-paced TV work ethic is just what you need.

Shot in black and white, probably meant to evoke an old Howard Hawks comedy, the story is as you remember it from English class. Beatrice (Amy Acker) and Benedick (Alexis Denisof) engage in a war of words so mean-spirited that it must be love. This all takes place in the home of Leonato (Clark Gregg) and winds up involving the more purely infatuated Hero (Jillian Morgese) and Claudio (Fran Kranz). Meanwhile, Don John (Sean Maher) spins a web of deceit meant to destroy Hero's life and damage Leonato in the process. When the lies, misunderstanding, rumor and duplicity enter, the action flies into a tailspin but nobody spills the champagne. It's breezy around here and detours into full-blown absurdity when bumbling police officers Dogberry (Nathan Fillion) and Verges (Tom Lenk) show up to investigate. Strangely, these cops appear to be living in a police station located in Whedon's basement storage room amidst boxes of spare Serenity DVDs, but that's only a mild distraction.

Clark and Fillion shine brightest here and keep you focused on the fun, but there's a bit of nagging on-screen trouble, like a rock in your shoe that can't be shaken out, surrounding the fake-fearsome feud between Beatrice and Benedick. Acker is on fire, tossing verbal razors at Denisof, but he's not quite her match. His Benedick is flabby, not up to the fight. And for a story where the happy ending is already a well-established part of literary history, it's disheartening to think that she's going to be saddled with this guy forever; too many flat moments that should have been fierce threaten to turn you against them and their inevitable love. It doesn't, but only because everything else feels so light. Good thing She's the Man is still around to remind you how good you have it here.


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