Much Ado About Nothing

is all about trickery. The comedy—one of Shakespeare's best—centers on two strong-minded singles, Beatrice and Benedick, each determined never to love and never to marry. Until, of course, their friends decide to play matchmaker. They hatch a crafty plot: The women will stage a conversation for Beatrice to overhear, in which they'll detail Benedick's ardent love for her, and the men will do the reverse for Benedick. The scheme works, and the two go on to engage in some of literature's liveliest, most flirtatious sparring.

Like those sly friends holding the strings, Joss Whedon is a masterful puppeteer himself. After wrapping The Avengers, the director retreated to his airy Santa Monica home, corralled some friends and, over the course of 12 days, secretly filmed his adaptation of Much Ado. (Whedon had for years gathered actors on Sunday afternoons for informal readings of Shakespeare.) It's shot in black-and-white, often with a handheld camera, but it's set in the present day, so characters drive luxury cars, wear crisply tailored Italian suits and watch videos on iPhones. Yet the text is still Shakespeare's, even if the actors' cadence and mannerisms feel modern. It's a dizzying, and initially jarring, mix of styles. But don't doubt puppeteer Whedon: Just like the film's characters, he knows when to loosen hold of the strings and let his capable players take over.

Simply put, Whedon's take on the Bard is one of the loveliest films I've seen this year. To be sure, it's at times slapsticky and screwball, but that's in keeping with the tone of the original play. Moreover, the film doesn't coast on its own cleverness. While it has an off-the-cuff nonchalance, it's grounded by precise performances, careful camera work and a sharp understanding of the gender politics at play.

Much Ado centers on two couples: In addition to spiky Beatrice (Amy Acker) and grumpy Benedick (Alexis Denisof), there's the simpler story of Hero (Jillian Morgese) and Claudio (Fran Kranz). Their love is endangered by Don John (Sean Maher), who tries to destroy Hero's honor with some old-fashioned slut-shaming. It's a tale of confused identities and dopey disguises, gentle love and prickly flirtation, deliberate manipulation and mixed messages, all laced with a strong sexual charge. Wisely, the cast plays it more like a Shakespeare-themed dinner party than a self-serious affair. 

Benedick and Beatrice's jousts form the heart of the story, and Acker and Denisof delight in slinging barbs and then, against their will, falling in love. Acker, whose features are as sharp as her tongue, makes her Beatrice a fierce-minded feminist hero. Denisof, meanwhile, brings an endearing daftness and goofball sense of vanity to his Benedick, striking farcically dramatic poses and dropping for push-ups when he sees Beatrice. In two of the film's best scenes, Benedick and Beatrice strain to eavesdrop on the conversations their friends have staged for them, with Denisof rolling across the lawn and Acker ducking under kitchen counters.
Visually, Whedon keeps viewers engaged with surprising framing and smart sight gags. Shooting in his own home no doubt made scouting locations easy, and Whedon finds unexpected camera angles and takes advantage of the natural light that floods the house. In a charming turn, Benedick and Claudio share a little girl's bedroom, inhabited by stuffed animals and Barbie dolls.

But most surprising is how bold this Much Ado feels. Shakespeare often gets outlandish updates in live theater, and brash film adaptations are hardly new—think of Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet, or even 10 Things I Hate About You. Whedon's Much Ado, though, strikes an especially impressive balance of loyalty and audacity, embracing its source text while still having some serious fun. 

Critic's Grade: A

SEE IT: Much Ado About Nothing is rated PG-13. It opens on Friday at Cinema 21.