Joss Whedon's black and white update of William Shakespeare's "Much Ado About Nothing" was shot in 12 days on a budget that wouldn't even cover the bagel portion of the craft services costs on "The Avengers."
Yet reviewers embraced the passion project, with a few critics like the New York Times' A.O. Scott even preferring it to Whedon's superhero blockbuster.
For his take on the Bard, Whedon transports "Much Ado About Nothing" from 16th century Messina to present-day Los Angeles (his Santa Monica house to be exact), where he follows the quipping and querulous lovers Benedick and Beatrice as they slowly come to accept their feelings for one another.
Critics handed the picture a sterling 83 percent "fresh" rating on the critics aggregator Rotten Tomatoes. It opens in limited release on Friday.
Not every reviewer was seduced by Whedon's take on the classic farce. The champagne flows freely in the picture, but TheWrap's Alonso Duralde groused that Alexis Denisof's Benedick lacks a certain sparkle even though Amy Acker's nails her role as a tart-tongued Beatrice.
"The balance between these two equal rivals – and the way they are tricked into turning their passion for each other from hate to love – is essential to the story, but while Acker successfully portrays a woman too smart and too strong to be shoved to the altar, Denisof never matches her fire," Duralde wrote. "Without a Benedick that is up to her level, we don’t want to see Beatrice fall in love, and the inequity between the leads sinks the movie."
While Duralde argued Whedon's take fell far short of comic gold, New York magazine's David Edelstein rhapsodized that it was the one of the "most enjoyable" film adaptations of Shakespeare's plays.
"I'm sure that academics will have objections, although Whedon has stood up to far worse than the Shakespeare (or Earl of Oxford) mob. He has been to Comic-Con," Edelstein wrote. "I’d be pressed to imagine a more sure-footed Much Ado. When Shakespeare’s done right, you can’t imagine him ever being done wrong. The clarity is blinding."
A.O. Scott of the New York Times was equally delighted with Whedon's glorified home movie, calling it the "most purely delightful" picture he's seen this year. It works, he writes, because it understands the screwball nature of the tale, drawing on classic film comedies like "Bringing Up Baby" to create a sense of pace and atmosphere.
"'Much Ado' was shot cheaply and quickly while the director was occupied with the mighty labor of 'The Avengers,' and it is in every way superior to that bloated, busy blockbuster," Scott wrote.
The Los Angeles Times' Kenneth Turan notes that setting the film in a posh Los Angeles suburb can be jarring, but found Shakespeare's text and Whedon's inventiveness are nearly strong enough to endure any tonal inconsistencies.
"The spirit and ideas behind this production are so nifty one wishes it were a 'Much Ado; for the ages, but that is not to be: limiting yourself in terms of time expended on the production and actors is not a recipe for complete success," Turan wrote. "Still, it feels like a blessing to have this production at all and we are fortunate it turned out as well as it did."
It's a modest production, The Wall Street Journal's Joe Morgenstern writes, but one that captures the drollness and romance of the original play.
"Most of the words are still in place, and many of them are delivered wittily, though some are tossed off awfully casually, or downright clumsily," Morgenstern wrote, adding, "…the joyous spirit of the play has been preserved in this modest, homegrown production."