Best Under-the-radar Movies #1: Much Ado About Nothing

Much Ado About Nothing
USA, 2012
Directed by Joss Whedon
Written by Joss Whedon and (duh) William Shakespeare
Starring the casts of Buffy, Angel, Firefly, and Dollhouse

Available to stream on Netflix, Amazon Prime Instant Video, and Epix

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I couldn’t resist making Much Ado About Nothing my number one on the list, since it was intentionally made under the detection of Hollywood’s radar. The movie was filmed in secret, between the principal shooting and post production of Whedon’s very much not under-the-radar The Avengers. It was shot in twelve days at Whedon’s home, and because of the tight schedule many shots had to be done in one take. The actors reportedly worked for one dollar and the budget was so small that Whedon wasn’t even able to get the Steadicams he wanted.

Despite all of this, the finished product is the best version of this story ever to reach the screen. I’ll go a step further. It’s right up there with the best Shakespearean adaptations ever put on film, which in my estimation are Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet, Julie Taymor’s Titus, and Roman Polanski’s MacBeth. You’ll notice my other favorites are all tragedies. For some reason Shakespeare’s comedies have made a less stellar showing on the silver screen than their tragic counterparts. Now finally, Whedon has crafted a top-class film that contends with the classics.

I hardly need to describe the story, but here’s the short version: Betrothed lovers Hero and Claudio are set to be married in a week. To have a laugh, they contrive a plan with Don Pedro to set a “lover’s trap” for Benedick and Beatrice, sworn rivals with a penchant for sharp-tongued exchanges.  In a subplot, the conniving Don Jon conspires to wreck the upcoming nuptials by accusing Hero of infidelity.

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This version is sexy, cheeky, and playful–just what The Bard ordered. The cast consists entirely of Whedon’s friends, family, and actors from his previous projects. Most in the third category probably belong in the first as well. It’s a very tight-knit group, and that comes through in the movie. The actors seem comfortable with each other through the entire story, and this gives the film an overall lighthearted feel. We sense that these are buddies, just having a good time in front of the camera, much like I imagine Shakespearean theatre troupes would have been in front of their audiences.

The dialogue is word for word from the play (except a change of the word “Jew” to “fool” for sensitivity’s sake). But this isn’t the undecipherable Shakespeare that some fear so much. Whedon’s touches make the Bard’s work accessible to everybody. This is the film you show to your friends who hate Shakespeare in hopes that they’ll see the error of their ways. Body language and timing are key, and the actors expertly communicate ideas to the audience with whatever visual cues are available to them.

IMG_9499Fans of Nathan Fillion (we are great and many) will especially enjoy his unforgettable portrayal of the bumbling constable, Dogberry. I found myself laughing out loud during his scenes. He brings a life to the character that just doesn’t exist when reading the play. But Fillion isn’t alone. Each one of these very talented actors brings something just a little different to the tale. The chemistry between the cynical and unwilling lovers Benedick (Denisof) and Beatrice (Acker) is particularly electrifying.

But the movie is about more than just the performances. The cinematography is at times stunning, the pace of the editing gives it a lively flow, and modern, everyday setting gives the story a refreshing feel. But more than anything, it just feels like a really good time, and we get to be in on fun.

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