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'Much Ado About Nothing' gracefully drags Shakespeare into modern times ★★★ 1/2

Michael Phillips

Talking Pictures

11:59 AM EDT, June 20, 2013

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Finally! A romantic comedy that works. And not just because of Shakespeare.

There's a disarming home-movie vibe to adapter/director Joss Whedon's small-scale, black-and-white contemporary version of "Much Ado About Nothing." He shot it in 12 days in his Santa Monica home, for starters, after completing principal photography on "The Avengers." For his Shakespearean vacation, Whedon called on a pickup ensemble culled from various Whedon projects over the years, from the TV series "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" to recent big-screen efforts such as "The Avengers" and "The Cabin in the Woods."

But the film, less traditional and more successful overall than Kenneth Branagh's "Much Ado" from 1993, has more than a winning sense of modesty in its favor. The situations, some of them ripely melodramatic though it's a comedy, are made to matter. The first images we see are of the fabled lovers Beatrice and Benedick once upon a time, when Benedick won Beatrice's heart "with false dice." Then the braggart, insecure as all braggarts are, moved on to a confirmed bachelorhood, while the "merry" heroine returned to her favorite default position: mocking those who would sing "heigh-ho! for a husband."

Whedon doesn't make a big deal out of his unscripted, wordless prologue. Rather, he taps it into place and establishes the emotional background and the setting of his "Much Ado."

The text remains fully Shakespeare, though nearly an hour of the play is gone. The various deceptions and complications afoot in the estate of the local governor (Clark Gregg, very good as Mr. Big) are played in a low-key way. Yes, there are smartphones and stylish 21st century sunglasses, and for some Shakespeare purists those'll be reason enough to skip Whedon's movie. But the romantic and comic elements work well, and they work together. By the time Nathan Fillion arrives as the constable Dogberry — here treated as if the Leslie Nielsen deadpan star of his own police procedural, "CSI: Messina" — everything's clicking. Fillion handles the well-worn shtick so beautifully, it's like watching these scenes for the first time.

For a lot of folks it will be the first time. I envy them. "Much Ado About Nothing" is the romantic comedy for the ages. Some performances are perfectly fine, such as Alexis Denisof's Benedick. Others transcend perfectly-fineness, notably Amy Acker's sympathetic, slightly klutzy Beatrice. She and Jillian Morgese (as the virginal Hero, betrothed to Fran Kranz's gullible Claudio) match up wonderfully as sisters. The acting may lack rhetorical flourish, but Whedon's not interested in rounded vowel sounds or harrumphing oratory. He's going for a modern-dress version that invests fully in Shakespeare's tangle of lies. The truth at the center is the love between two of the greatest characters in literature. Whedon's pocket-sized "Much Ado" knocks the characters off their perches and treats them like living, breathing human beings, in love or thereabouts.

'Much Ado About Nothing' -- 3 1/2 stars
MPAA rating
: PG-13 (for some sexuality and brief drug use)
Running time: 1:49
Opens: Friday