Shot in a spectacular Tuscan villa, Much Ado About Nothing (PG-13), Kenneth Branagh's incandescent new Shakespeare adaptation, looks luscious enough to eat. The entire movie is bathed no, drenched in sunlight. A delectable golden glow practically radiates from the screen, and the actors appear to have spent their free time under that very same sun: This may be the first Shakespeare movie in which the characters sport tans worthy of an MTV spring-break marathon. Branagh, it's obvious, is trying to make Shakespeare as glamorous and yummy-sexy as possible, and his attempt doesn't stop with the setting or the photography; he has studded the film with 500-watt (mostly American) stars, the kind of names that light up marquees. In addition to Branagh and Emma Thompson as the proudly embattled Benedick and Beatrice, the cast includes Denzel Washington, Michael Keaton, Keanu Reeves, and Robert Sean Leonard. This isn't a movie it's a party.
Clearly, Branagh has slathered a hefty gob of contemporary frosting onto this 16th-century cake, enough to keep art houses (and maybe even malls) packed for several months. His true achievement, however, is that he has found his way to the play's profound yet populist heart, rediscovering Shakespeare's vision of romantic fulfillment celebration with an underlying tug of sadness for an era that believes itself all too wise to the ways of love.
The movie opens with a burst of joy, as Don Pedro (Washington) and his men return from the wars, the soundtrack flooded with an ecstatic fanfare, the screen filled with images of men and women smiling, bathing, primping. This, the movie says, is what nature intended: courtship as a childlike effusion. It's the words, of course, that get in the way.
They certainly do for Beatrice and Benedick, whose ''merry war'' of insults becomes the occasion for some of the most enchanting flirtatious badinage since Katharine Hepburn introduced Cary Grant to a leopard named Baby. Branagh understands that Shakespeare, in essence, invented screwball comedy-that touching and funny spectacle, at once supremely worldly and supremely innocent, in which men and women create force fields of wit as a way of deluding each other (and themselves) into believing that they can rise above the call of their emotions. No actor I've seen can deliver the Bard's tongue-tripping constructions as tossed-off speech the way that Branagh does. His Benedick seems startlingly contemporary: swift, virile, with a touch of the frat-house narcissist. Thompson's radiant, acid-tongued Beatrice is the wiser of the two, yet she too is trapped by the very games her pride and intelligence compel her to play. When the two are tricked by friends into believing that each one is beloved by the other (the sublimity of the joke is that the ''illusion'' is true), their playful antagonism doesn't vanish, exactly; it melts into the affection that was always there.
As long as Branagh and Thompson are on screen, Much Ado shimmers. In the second half, though, the movie lurches into its dawdling central incident: Claudio (Leonard), the valiant but guileless young nobleman, is tricked by the vengeful Don John (Keanu Reeves) into thinking that his true love, Hero (Kate Beckinsale), has lost her virginity to someone else. When Claudio rejects her (at the altar), it's a piercing moment we see the dark underside of love's consuming spirit. Nevertheless, the slow grinding of Much Ado's plot becomes wearisome, at least to this 20th-century soul. And Michael Keaton doesn't help: His spitting, belching, eyeball-popping performance as constable Dogberry only emphasizes how hermetically sealed off from the rest of the play this clownish runt of a character really is.
Still, if the movie falls into a ditch, it recovers quite splendidly when Claudio discovers his life-denying mistake. For a brief scene, Leonard, crying with happiness, ascends to the cloud his British costars are on. It would be hard to imagine a moment when romantic passion seemed more desperate, more rapturous, more true. A-