Joss Whedon is becoming a fixture at SXSW. Last year he brought us "The Cabin in the Woods" and a panel where he previewed some magic from "Avengers." This year, he brought us the film he shot in 12 days at his house, "Much Ado About Nothing," a black and white, modern day adaptation of Shakespeare’s play. Then, he and his cast of misfits stuck around for an hour to answer questions and receive adulation from several starstruck fans.


It is awesome. With the black and white, the acting and the script are really the star players here. And they shine through in this romantic tour de force. The shining stars here are Whedon vets Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof as the original will-they-or-won’t-they couple Beatrice and Benedick. Squabbling throughout the whole film, they bring life and energy to words that can often be intimidating to those not accustomed to reading/hearing/seeing Shakespeare.  Those familiar with the play will enjoy them alongside any number of excellent performances, most notably Kenneth Branaugh’s version from the 90's.


For Shakespeare purists, Whedon throws a major cureveball and immense texture into their relationship by revealing in the very first scene that Beatrice and  Benedick had engaged in some sort of one night stand or riotous fling… and it had ended badly or abruptly.


Other standout performances include Clark Gregg, playing the patriarch Leonato, whose daughter Hero is the object of wooing by young Claudio, played by a cast-against-type Fran Kranz. Gregg’s crisp and emotional delivery helps make Leonato a standout character. I thought this impossible as every other version I’ve ever seen has Leonato played almost as a doddering old fool.  Claudio is also outstanding here, as Whedon instructed him to play as mostly a dumb jock and kind of a dick.


And then there are Nathan Fillion and Sean Maher, who squeeze every second of screen time for all they’re worth, turning small roles into highlights of the film. Fillion’s constable Dogberry is the polar opposite of Michael Keaton’s manic and deluded version from the Branaugh film. A strange mix of Barney Fife and David Caruso on CSI: Miami, he hits all the right notes and mostly gets out of the way of the script.


Maher plays the villain with reckless abandon, twisted by Whedon’s casting of one of his henchman Conrade as a henchwoman. This leads to an interesting and either sexy or incredibly uncomfortable scene (depending on your sensibilities) early in the film. But the bottom line is, you get that Don John is a bastard. And I have one word for you: cupcake. When you see the film, you’ll get it. It was brilliant, and, according to Whedon, completely improvised by Maher.


With an amazing script, how could we go wrong, and what could Whedon conceivably add? Well, aside from the twists mentioned above, he adds a lot of physical humor to the mix. And he seems to think of this as Shakespeare by way of "Mad Men" as much alcohol as is consumed in the course of the film.


Indeed, the entirety of this Much Ado is filled with sexuality, drinking and debauchery—a change from a play around which the main concern is putting the virginity of young Hero in question. Whedon answered the charge that while that may have been a major issue in the Victorian Era, for his modern take, this was all about a naïve young man having the woman he’s supposed to marry cheat on him the night before their wedding.


So how does Nathan Fillion feel about tackling The Bard? “I peed a little,” he answered in the Q&A. Clark Gregg agreed, who was intimidated with the work, having never done Shakespeare at all. “I peed a lot.” And, of course, the questions about SHIELD came up. As to how Agent Coulson is back, Whedon gave a brusque, “I’m not going to talk about that.” Clark Gregg then jumped in to add “I just have to say….” and them mimed his mic going out. Classic.


I’m a fan of both Whedon, his screenwriter Billy Shakespeare, and this cast. Given the passion behind this passion project, it would’ve been hard to really miss the mark.


3 1/2 stars

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