The best part about Joss Whedon's Much Ado About Nothing is that it's not particularly proud of itself for adapting Shakespeare. Filmmakers tend to tackle the Bard out of hubris (the Mel Gibson Hamlet), an attempt to be some sort of authority (Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet), a flamboyant go-for-batshit-nutty-broke spirit (Baz Luhrmann's Romeo & Juliet) or self-consciously artsy revisionism (the Ethan Hawke Hamlet). What I love about Whedon's Much Ado About Nothing is that he seems to have made it just because he thought it might be kind of fun, why not? It has an infectious, collaborative, hey-kids-let's-put-on-a-show! spirit, and it is irresistible.
Whedon, who put together the production with his friends (including old TV buddies Amy Acker, Nathan Fillion, Fran Kranz, among others) as a way to decompress after finishing up the massive project that was The Avengers, has the light touch of someone who is just trying to have a good time and cleanse his palette. It takes place in modern-day Southern California—shot in crisp, unobtrusive black-and-white—and is fantastically unfussy. It takes what's great about the play—the endless wordplay and romantic confusion, the sense of good cheer—and just lays it out for us. There isn't any reinvention: This is Whedon taking a play he loves and goofing around with it to make it his, a student play with professional actors and directors in charge. It's light as a feather and will put a hop in your step.
The actors are always sort of key in these, and three stand out here. Fillion, from TV's Castle and Serenity (and a Whedon vet from way back), is a bumbling, deeply amusing Dogberry, the incompetent cop who knows something nefarious is going on but doesn't have a clue as to what to do about it. Kranz, another Whedon vet whom I liked quite a bit as the stoner in The Cabin in the Woods, has the thankless, largely boring role of Claudio but makes it charming, conflicted, and even funny. (Kranz is one of those actors who makes me laugh just by looking at him.) But Acker, an actress whose work I was unfamiliar with, is the film's real find, as Beatrice. Whedon has always specialized in strong female leads, and he gives Acker a plum role and tons of rope to run with it; Beatrice is a modern character who both modernizes the play and keeps it locked in the past. Acker kills the role. I sort of want to see her in every TV show now.
Yes, there's nothing revolutionary here, and one could make a pretty strong argument that this film exists so Whedon and his actors could have a weekend in a scenic cottage and get drunk together. But it's never self-indulgent. It's just here to have a good time. It means only to entertain and ingratiate, to welcome you into its party. It's not all that far from what Shakespeare was meaning to do with this play in the first place. This approach wouldn't work for Hamlet or Macbeth. (Though the failure would be highly watchable, that's for sure.) But the combination of Whedon, his pals, and Much Ado About Nothing is frothy, relaxing fun. Whedon's on quite a run, with this, The Avengers and Cabin in the Woods. If this is what he does just to kick his feet back in between projects, well, the rest of us are in for a fun few more years. He's hitting his stride as an entertainer and as a filmmaker. He's making it look easy.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.