Let's just say his Much Ado couldn't be less like The Avengers if it tried. Black and white, witty and wise, playful and elegant, this Much Ado shows just what a filmmaker and his friends can do if they chart their own course and play their own games, without a whole lot of Hollywood interference or the pressure of a huge budget. And even though we had to wait a bit longer than most areas of the country to get Much Ado, we've got it now, on the big screen at Champaign's historic Art Theater Co-op. It's scheduled to stick around at least through August 1, which isn't a whole lot of time. But it's enough if you're motivated. And you should be.
Whedon's cast features many of his favorite actors, people who've appeared in previous projects like Buffy and Dollhouse and even The Avengers and Cabin in the Woods, people like Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof, the Beatrice and Benedick of this Much Ado, along with Reed Diamond, Nathan Fillion, Clark Gregg, Ashley Johnson, Fran Kranz, Tom Lenk, Sean Maher and Jillian Morgese. They're comfortable with Whedon and with each other, and it shows, as the film unspools with easy charm and a lovely sense of humor.
It may've been shot on a small budget in 12 days spent in Whedon's own house and gardens, but the film looks sensational, especially the big party scene with some aerial work above the pool, a spooky candlelit walk, and the eavesdropping sections when Beatrice and Benedick are tricked by their friends. Acker and Denisof make appealing, attractive romantic foils, and they both do very well with Shakespeare's amusing dialogue, framed against the nooks and crannies of Whedon's home, as designed by his architect-wife Kai Cole.
With the action set as a house party in Southern California, visiting Don Pedro (a wonderful Reed Diamond) becomes a jet-setting bigwig of some unidentified fame, followed by paparazzi, and his evil half-brother Don John (Sean Maher) is a miscreant in handcuffs, allowed freedom (and a girlfriend of sorts, as Conrade is turned into a slinky woman played by Riki Lindhome) for the duration of the visit. There's wine and spirits at every turn, which both shows the lifestyle host Leonato (Clark Gregg) enjoys as well as explains some of the trickier plot turns. Of course everybody believes nonsense -- they're all sloshed!
In this scenario, Dogberry and Verges are the security force keeping an eye on Leonato's estate, tripping over each other and the villains and their nefarious plots almost by accident. With cheap poly suits and sunglasses they don in unison to give them the patina of authority, Castle's Nathan Fillion and Tom Lenk, Ronald the intern from Cabin the Woods, make for a sweet, goofy team of enforcers.
I didn't enjoy Fran Kranz's Claudio all that much, but it's always tough to identify with the young swain who gets so bent out of shape about his beloved's perceived lack of virginity. Jillian Morgese is fine as Hero, the girl in question, and Claudio's horror is a little more understandable considering it's not just that he thinks he saw her having sex with somebody else, but he saw it on the night before their wedding and she was wearing her wedding dress when she did the deed. We know it wasn't really her, and all the talk of virginity is still very misplaced, but the timing and the picture he sees are pretty nasty in this staging of the event. Of course, that doesn't explain why he shows up for the wedding and goes for public shaming (in the ugliest possible terms) instead of a simple buh-bye note or something, but... That's the way Shakespeare wrote it and I suppose we're stuck with it.
The strength of this filmed Much Ado lies in its sophisticated romantic style, which seems very now at the same time it brings to life classic characters of Beatrice and Benedick and their complicated relationship. With Acker and Denisof in the roles, it's easy to fall under their spell of lovers "too wise to woo peaceably."