The feints, schemes, deceptions and setbacks that inevitably lead to love make for a divertingly merry war in “Much Ado About Nothing,” Joss Whedon’s larky DIY adaptation of Shakespeare’s play. Transposing the manners and verbal flourishes of Elizabethan England to 21st-century Santa Monica, Calif., Whedon finds unexpected meaning in this famously saucy “skirmish of wit,” the opposites-attract story upon which myriad modern-day rom-coms have sprung. Not only does the spiky verbal sparring between would-be lovers Beatrice and Benedick still crackle with convincing sting and verve, but Shakespeare also turns out to have plenty to say about an era when, more than ever, someone is more apt to be destroyed by fast-moving rumors and strategic leaks than by an act of brute physical aggression.
As the story opens, the brave and accomplished officer Benedick (Alexis Denisof) is just arriving at the home of governor Leonato (Clark Gregg), whose daughter Hero (Jillian Morgese) soon comes into the sights of Benedick’s comrade-in-arms, Claudio (Fran Kranz). While Benedick is being lionized for his courage and smooth ways with the ladies, Hero’s sharp-tongued cousin Beatrice (Amy Acker) is having none of it. She has a history with Benedick, and before long the two are engaging in the kind of verbal warfare that can only mean that, by the third act, they’ll fall in love.
Before that can happen, though, all manner of calamities and misunderstanding must befall the household, in this case a sprawling, wine-and-flower-filled house party in Southern California that moves from boozy brunch to al fresco cocktail party to thwarted wedding with an infectiously languid sense of slightly tipsy ease. Filmed over 12 days at Whedon’s real-life house, “Much Ado About Nothing” features the filmmaker’s friends — many of whom will be familiar to fans of his television series “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” — who reportedly make Shakespeare readings a frequent dinner-party ritual. That air of off-handed fun infuses a production that may not always benefit from spot-on line readings, but makes up for any deficiency in sheer let’s-put-on-a-show pluck.
Where else, after all, can one witness Benedick deliver his famously macho defense of bachelorhood sitting next to a dollhouse in a little girl’s prettily appointed bedroom? (“Much Ado About Nothing” was filmed in black and white, but it’s impossible to remember that scene in any other color than pink.) And where else will the pivotal masked ball be staged with scantily clad acrobats, scads of candles and twinkle lights and a mellow jazz arrangement of Shakespeare’s poem “Sigh no more, ladies”?
Those are ingenious touches, as are messengers delivering their missives via iPhones and other nods toward modern-day technology (forsooth, a Bluetooth!). And “Much Ado About Nothing” is graced by some exceptional performances, especially Kranz as the besotted Claudio, Gregg as the inebriated (but somehow sober) Leonato, the hilarious Nathan Fillion as Constable Dogberry and Acker, who undergoes an astonishing transformation as a woman whose disdain turns to devotion in one incandescent instant: Her entire physicality changes, her face seeming to lighten and glow.
With early morning mists rolling in from the greensward behind Whedon’s mission-style home, its spare but elegant interior serving as an appropriately luxe backdrop, “Much Ado About Nothing” offers a meta-glimpse into how a certified Hollywood mega-auteur lives — at least one who can boast not just “The Avengers” to his credit but also a fiendishly clever viral sensation called “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog.” With “Much Ado About Nothing,” Whedon has crafted an endearing bagatelle, made with equal parts brio and love, ambition and pared-down modesty. Doubling down on sheer energy and goodwill rather than elaborate production values and overproduced perfection, he has brought just the right spirit to bear on a story about people who are too rich for their own good and too clever by half.
PG-13. At at area theaters. Contains some sexuality and brief drug use. 109 minutes.