Much Ado About Nothing

KITCHEN-COUNTER COMEDY: Amy Acker's Beatrice takes some alone time in 'Much Ado About Nothing.'

Is it "nothing" that matter that Shakespeare uses as the engine of the frequently cruel comedy Much Ado About Nothing? The allegedly lighthearted subject is the dreadful way men and women treat each other, just because they can.

The two sexes call each other animals ("A bird of my tongue is better than a beast of yours") in foolish denial of their own natures. "Sex is a way of reminding an animal pretending not to be an animal that it is an animal," wrote Kingsley Amis. This 400-year-old comedy has a contemporary twist: the sure-fire power of slut-shaming.

Joss Whedon's low-budget black-and-white, small-camera version of the play takes place at a Santa Monica mountains house party during a long weekend. There's more than a little of Whedon's honest and honorable feminism here, a touch of Neil LaBute to the way the suit-clad victors gang up and prank each other. A lighted swimming pool steams away through the night, while tastefully Sapphic new-vaudeville acrobats cavort. Riki Lindhome, the tough blonde actress playing the co-conspirator Conrade, wears a striped Edie Sedgwick shirt, and the play's tune "Hey, Nonny Nonny" is crooned late at night to the rhythms of the Velvet Underground's "Rock & Roll."

Witty Lady Beatrice is played by Amy Acker, sweet, gawky "Fred" from TV's Angel. Alexis Denisof (Wesley from Angel and Buffy the Vampire Slayer) plays Benedick. He used to play a Roddy McDowallish geek; Denisof has some meat on his bones now, some muscle and maturity, and he looks a bit like Edward Fox. Denisof's voice is slightly woodwindish in a role where you like to hear a little brass. And yet these two good-looking and chemical leads bring out the true spirit of the fight as well as the screwball comedy of reconciliation.

The 1992 Kenneth Branagh version isn't made irrelevant by new Ado. You miss the purring drawl Emma Thompson brought to a phrase like "civil as an orange." But fans of the learned constable Dogberry (Nathan Fillion), who were shorted two decades ago, get served beautifully this time. O rare N. Fillion, the acme of the bluff, fatuous man, plays Dogberry as a fatuous rent-a-cop in a Polyester sports-coat of Soviet cut.

The film gives us mature romance and acid youthfulness aligned—well worth sighing over.

Much Ado About Nothing

PG-13; 107 min.

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