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Joss Whedon tosses off simple take on Shakespeare in “Much Ado”

From now on, every glowing profile of Joss Whedon will comment on how he followed his blockbuster to end all blockbusters “The Avengers” with a black and white, low-budget adaptation of “Much Ado About Nothing,” opening here Friday. It was filmed at his Santa Monica home in just 12 days during an “Avengers” post-production break. Surely, the cult filmmaker and TV creator anticipated some confusion. Having topped his “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Firefly” revelry with the most overly anticipated superhero film to date, it’s hard not to see Whedon’s next move as a classy brush-off to insurmountable expectations.

Why “Much Ado About Nothing”? Well, if you’re looking for a Shakespeare play to goof off with for two weeks, it’s certainly easier than “Hamlet” or “King Lear,” isn’t it? Beyond that, who knows. But it looks like Whedon and his cast of quasi-famous pals – most returning from previous Whedon projects – properly enjoyed themselves.

If your high school English teacher stretched beyond “Romeo and Juliet” and “Macbeth,” you already know the plot. Our main couple, Beatrice (Amy Acker) and Benedick (Alexis Denisof), swear up and down to not have feelings for each other, as their friends gradually coax and connive them to share their true desires during a weekend getaway. Here, the “merry war” between Beatrice and Benedick feels like Shakespeare-as-sitcom, with sharp slights and sudden pratfalls and a “Seinfeld”-esque bass line transitioning several scenes. Meanwhile, the younger couple, Claudio (Fran Kranz) and Hero (Jillian Morgese), are unremittingly smitten, but the scheming Don John (Sean Maher) tries thwarting their hasty marriage plans with a false story of infidelity.

Both couples are played with the right balance of silliness and seductiveness, but as is the case for most renditions of “Much Ado,” the true star is Dogberry (Nathan Fillion), the incompetent police chief who tries solving the whole mess as tactfully as the Big Lebowski investigates a kidnapping. Fillion, a veteran of “Firefly,” “Buffy” and “Castle,” plays the role with a stock-still seriousness, stealing all of his scenes by remaining stubbornly oblivious to his foolishness, as the greatest fools ought to be played.

The film stays true to Shakespeare’s words and narrative, even though “Messina” is a mansion in California (quite impressive) and the setting is obviously our century, with MacBooks and iPhones making unexplained, unremarked appearances. It’s the same classic/modern contrast that Baz Luhrmann pulled in his headache-inducing “Romeo + Juliet,” but not at the disservice of the original text’s nimble charms. (Was Whedon not available for “The Great Gatsby”?) Without striving for authenticity or grasping for some fresh approach, this adaptation maintains a frisky, lightly absurdist vibe that is ideal for Shakespeare’s comedy of romantic errors.

As the film ambled accordingly to its all’s well ending, with mirth and marriages galore, I found myself wishing that Whedon had pushed for a bolder vision – something more committed and more impressionable than a tossed-off project that feels, quite literally, like a bunch of friends hanging out and a Shakespeare film, as if incidentally, resulting. This “Much Ado” draws on the elemental delights of the play’s barbed wit and lovestruck banter, and is content to leave it at that. Whedon and company merely meant to deprogram with this short-lived passion project, and greatness is neither achieved nor thrust upon this production.

It’s serviceable Shakespeare, but on these midsummer nights, the Bard is better served at Delaware Park.

Much Ado About Nothing

Two and a half stars (Out of four)

Starring: Amy Acker, Alexis Denisof, Nathan Fillion and Jillian Morgese

Director: Joss Whedon

Running time: 107 minutes

Rating: PG-13 for some sexuality and brief drug use.

The Lowdown: A black and white, low-budget adaptation of William Shakespeare’s comedy about a “merry war” between secret lovers.