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Review: Joss Whedon’s ‘Much Ado’ blends the Bard’s language with a SoCal vibe

The new film adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing is Shakespeare, but it’s not Shakespeare-Shakespeare. It’s Shakespeare by Joss Whedon, director of Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, Angel and The Avengers.

So, what to expect from Whedon’s Will? “What heat vision through yonder window breaks? It is the East and Iron Man is the Sun.” Nope. It turns out Whedon is a serious Shakespeare fanboy, and the liberties he has taken are in the spirit of the Bard’s era.

His version of Much Ado has little resemblance to Kenneth Branagh’s spectacle from 1993 (Denzel Washington and Villa Vignamaggio in Italy). I recommend that one, too (if only for Kate Beckinsdale). With Whedon, though, there’s no Tuscan villa, no famous actors, no 16th century costumes. It’s all handheld camera, present-day dress and, literally, the Whedon house in Santa Monica (the Whedon children have many, many stuffed animals).

So how is Elizabethan Whedon? A delight, almost from start to finish. The cast is uniformly excellent, especially Angel graduates Amy Acker as Beatrice and Alexis Denisof as Benedick, the central lovers, but also Reed Diamond (Homicide: Life on the Street) as Don Pedro and Clark Gregg (The Avengers) as Leonato.

The usual high-falutin’ treatment is traded for black-and-white cinematography, leaving Whedon and the viewer with language — which, for Shakespeare’s day, was impudent, experimental and bawdy (pay attention to things hidden in sheaths). Furthermore, Whedon has restaged action, regendered roles and, above all, un-Britished accents to render all of the exposition in limpid Californian. And, yes, despite his protests on a recent Late Night With David Letterman show, Nathan Fillion, of Castle and formerly of Firefly, does a terrific job as the ridiculous Dogberry.

One nit: In the beginning, there is a too-blunt (invented) explanation for why Beatrice hates Benedick. But perhaps an audience unfamiliar with Shakespeare may need bluntness — so they can fall in love with him for the first time.