This is the End isn’t the only movie open right now where a bunch of friends get together and goof off in a famous person’s house for two hours. Director Joss Whedon, hot off of The Avengers, collected all his actor buddies together to shoot the Bard’s Much Ado About Nothing, using his own California home as the set and an abridged version of the original text as the script. It’s his attempt to convince us he’s more than just that nerdy guy who’ll be overseeing Marvel’s movies for the rest of the decade. He’s arty, too. But the discerning viewer will quickly read between his cast’s vigorously rehearsed lines. At least The End felt like a real movie. Whedon’s uncontextualized Much Ado is more like a final project for English class.

The prose is familiar to the literary set, but the actors are only to those who spend time in front of the TV set. Alexis Denisof (Angel) stars as Benedick, the gleefully misogynist egotist who’s decided that “till all graces be in one woman, one woman shall not come in my grace.” And Amy Acker (also from Angel) is Beatrice, the manipulative, one-step-ahead, verbally castrating yin to Benedick’s overconfident yang. Fran Kranz (Cabin in the Woods,) and Jillian Morgese are Claudio and Hero, two more star-crossed lovers who are youthful and idealistic and unsullied by all the experiences that have made Benedick and Beatrice so insular. But all four must play the fool to the party that surrounds them, a group of miscreants and would-be cupids who decide to complicate their inevitable romances as they see fit.

Clark Gregg (The Avengers) features as Leonato, Hero’s father and the overseer of Whedon’s coastal Messina; Sean Maher does his best to smolder as the duplicitous Don Jon; and Nathan Fillion clowns as the earnestly minded and unfortunately behaved constable Dogberry. In fact, just about everyone clowns. Perhaps worried that the Shakespearean dialogue would lose much of his audience, Whedon’s packed this performance with more pratfalls than a Benny Hill short.

Shakespeare may have been for the masses, but I’ve never seen that concept embraced so broadly. The biggest laughs come not from Shakespeare, but from throwaway, off-the-cuff gags — Benedick trying on a funny hat, Beatrice taking a loud tumble down the stairs, a couple of cops locking their keys in the car. The mugging is shameless. It’s not an accentuation of the dialogue — it’s a cover-up.

The actors play for the back row, with only Fillion’s doltish repetitions and Acker’s lyrical put-downs capturing the effortless grace that resides on the page. Denisof’s Diet-Jason-Lee persona, all mawkish smiles and loud outbursts, is, in the theatrical tradition, painfully ingratiating. That’s better than I can say for Kranz, however, who rattles off his dialogue with incoherent speed, as if he had memorized the words but not their meaning. It’s all too stilted to achieve the play’s effortless sexiness. Whedon is as far away from a sensualist as filmmakers can be. This is an overhyped class play, and one with few A-students.

Not that Whedon does much to help their cause. His compositions are as dull as his black-and-white color palette, capturing drably dressed bodies with such a complete lack of visual inspiration that you’ll think you’re watching TV. He’s always been the type who directed so that he could retain control over his own written word, and without his own prose to paternally shepherd, his artistic decisions are driven solely by convenience. The monochrome cinematography allows him to shoot with uneven, natural lighting. The contemporary dress precludes period details and the unaltered text allows him to justify a total lack of cultural contextualization. Even the sets are left undressed. He shot this movie in 12 days, while on break from The Avengers. You can tell — it feels like a lark, a side-project, a B-side. It shouldn’t even be a wide-release movie. It’s more like a DVD extra.

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