Try this game: What TV ensemble would you like to see perform a classic play?
You might imagine the folks from Mad Men in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest: Don Draper and Roger as the droll Londoners, Joan and Betty as the wily young women they meet in the country and, perhaps, Bert Cooper (Bobby Morse) in drag as Lady Bracknell. The characters in The Simpsons? They could populate a splendid Our Town. And although The Honeymooners predated Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, the casting of Ralph and Alice Cramden as George and Martha, and the Nortons as their all-night guests, would bring a working-class twist to Edward Albee’s academic Truth or Dare ordeal.
Instead, we get a version of William Shakespeare‘s Much Ado About Nothing enacted mostly by veterans of Joss Whedon’s TV shows and movies. Whedon had occasionally convened s group of actors for readings of plays; now, he would commit one of these to film. Taking a vacation in the fall of 2011 between the shooting and the editing of Marvel’s The Avengers, Whedon shot Much Ado in 12 days at his Santa Monica residence, which his wife, the architect Kai Cole, had designed and outfitted in a clean, contemporary mode. If his intent was to make the ultimate home movie — a one-domicile episode of House Hunters — Whedon succeeded. If he hoped to bring a fresh take on a rom-com masterpiece written at the end of the 16th century, he and the audience have to be disappointed.
(READ: Corliss’s review of Joss Whedon’s The Avengers)
A roundelay of feuding lovers, of hearts broken and mended, and of gossip as the driving force of envy and enmity, Much Ado speaks blithely to every generation and class; it is the rare Shakespeare play that high-schoolers needn’t be chained to their desks to get through, learn from and enjoy. Set in the Sicilian port city of Messina — but really in the penthouses and gardens of any group of aristocrats with no agenda but playing love games — the plot concerns two couples: the moony Claudio and Hero, his fiancée, and the bantering Benedick and his “Lady Disdain” Beatrice. The first pair’s marriage is aborted by the malicious rumor of Hero’s infidelity, which Claudio stupidly believes; the second duo is pushed to the altar by being falsely told that each loves the other. For all the play’s slander and duplicity, and skirmish of wits and wills, the tone is as merry as the day is long, and as sweet as a wedding night’s fond consummation.
Whedon, who birthed the impish, influential TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Dollhouse and Firefly before directing the third-highest-grossing movie hit of all time, could have assembled an all-star cast, steeped in Shakespeare. But the man is faithful, to a fault, to his actor friends. As Beatrice and Benedick, he cast Amy Acker (who had appeared in Angel, Dollhouse and the Whedon-scripted horror film The Cabin in the Woods) and Alexis Denisof (Buffy, Angel and The Avengers), and chose Franz Kranz (Dollhouse, Cabin) and newcomer Jillian Morgese (an extra in The Avengers) for Claudio and Hero.
(READ: James Poniewozik on Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse)
Clark Gregg (The Avengers) plays Governor Leonato, Reed Diamond (Dollhouse) the prince Don Pedro and Sean Maher (Firefly) Don Pedro’s bastard half-brother Don John, who confects the lie about Hero. Ashley Johnson (Dollhouse, The Avengers) is Hero’s saucy, perfidious maid Margaret, Nathan Fillion (Buffy, Firefly) the dim-witted Constable Dogberry and Tom Lenk (Buffy, Angel, Cabin) his oafish partner Verges. Of the dozen major roles, only one is filled by an apparent Whedon virgin: Spencer Treat Clark as Don John’s villainous cohort Borachio — though another Jossian, the sexy blond Riki Lindhome (Buffy), switches genders to play Conrade, Don John’s closest confidant.
They might all be fine. Just because Whedon didn’t ask, say, George Clooney and Sandra Bullock to spend a Santa Monica fortnight as Benedick and Beatrice doesn’t mean that the company he did choose couldn’t lend full artistry and brio to the play. The actors here are mostly okay, some better, some worse. They speak the lines competently and rarely step out of character — except when their director insists on raw physical-comedy tumbles and stumbles. You could say they make for an exemplary cast of understudies. Acker too often works her mouth into a pained smile-frown, but she radiates some of the lovely gawky coltishness of the young Audrey Hepburn. The actors playing the villains put too heavy a reliance on smirking and simpering, as to be evil were to be gay. So mediocre are a few of the actors that one instantly embraces the pros when they show up: Fillion, who speaks Dogberry’s malapropisms with the suave self-assurance of an idiot who thinks he’s a genius, and Paul Meston in the small role of Friar Francis.
(READ: Belinda Luacombe’s 10 Questions for Joss Whedon)
The most savory Much Ado revivals — the Royal Shakespeare Company’s 1984 production with Derek Jacobi as Benedick and Sinead Cusack as Beatrice, or the 1988 Shakespeare in the Park production starring Kevin Kline and Blythe Danner, or Kenneth Branagh’s 1993 film with himself and Emma Thompson — are displays of assured actors reveling, summering in Shakespeare, bringing life and lilt to a pair of perfectly matched rivals. That’s not the case here: the company’s comfort level is a little lacking. Sitting through this Much Ado is like watching the actors in Tom Hooper’s film of Les Misérables try to sing “live”: they can do it, but the strain shows, on their part and the viewer’s.
Released in creamy black-and-white (cinematography by Dollhouse’s Jay Hunter), and boasting a subtly evocative ambient sound track (kudos to supervising sound editor Victor Ennis), the movie plants its actors in the Whedon kitchen, backyard and a child’s ornately decorated bedroom, complete with… dollhouse! Claudio’s readiness to believe the worst of Hero doesn’t get the dramatic jolt it needs — of an alarming sexual prejudice — and the movie is either consciously or reflexively the province of an all-white Southern California moneyed class swilling wine and martinis. (When Claudio finally blurts out that he’d married any woman, even “were she an Ethiope,” Whedon allows us the rare view of a black woman, an extra, in the background.) To make Much Ado all-American can also be to make it multiracial. Branagh, after all, cast Denzel Washington as Don Pedro. Perhaps Branagh, who also directed a Marvel movie (Thor), should have dropped by chez Whedon with a few hints for the director and his company.
And as long as I’m imagining alternate actors (and directors) for classic plays, allow me to recast this Much Ado with other performers who have worked with Whedon, starting with Robert Downey Jr. and Scarlett Johansson (both from The Avengers) as Benedick and Beatrice. I’d have all the other roles played by the star of Whedon’s musical-comedy triumph, Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog: Neil Patrick Harris. From playing the friendly lecher in How I Met Your Mother to hosting this weekend’s Tony Award show — that guy can do anything.