Friday, September 19, 2014

Much Ado About Nothing (2012) ***

This hybrid Shakespeare update is a low-budget, black-and-white project directed by Joss Whedon that proves once again that you don't need to spend a lot of money to make great art. I call it a hybrid, because while the film features a modern, California setting and modern dress, the actors use the original Shakespearean lines. The effect is unsettling at first, and the language is hard to follow (as you may recall from high school), but the acting is so good that you very quickly get used to it.

The action in this classic comedy centers around two couples. Claudio (Fran Kranz) and Hero (Jillian Morgese) already fancy each other, and while they are young and shy, it is light work for their families and friends to bring them together and arrange a marriage. Benedick (Alexis Denisof) and Beatrice (Amy Acker), on the other hand, seem on the surface to despise one another, and constantly trade clever barbs. Their animosity seems to stem at least in part from a one-night-stand that ended awkwardly, which we see at the beginning of the film. We being a wise audience, however, it is obvious to us that their animosity masks a powerful chemistry, and that their oaths of single-hood are doomed to end in marriage.

The fly in the ointment is the bastard John (Sean Maher), half-brother of Don Pedro (Reed Diamond.) The Don is bosom-buddies with Leonato (Clark Gregg), who is Hero's father and Beatrice's uncle. The Don, therefore, is overjoyed to see both these ladies betrothed to his friends Claudio and Benedick, which makes his scheming brother John determined to upset the nuptials.

I won't give away anything further, but you can rest assured of a happy ending. As anyone who has studied Shakespeare knows, he only made two kinds of plays: tragedies, in which the protagonist always dies, and comedies, in which things always work out as they should, despite the obstacles. “Much Ado About Nothing” is one of the comedies, and aptly named in that nothing of any weight really happens. Characters get upset and fly off the handle over the slightest of misunderstandings. Nonetheless, it's a charming and funny tale.

I would call this little film-making experiment a success. The use of modern dress for the characters knocks the dust off of Shakespeare's dense comedy and lets its sexiness shine. The cast is chock full of excellent character actors, many of whom you will recognize from other Joss Whedon projects like “Firefly.” Nathan Fillian is particularly good as a bumbling, self-important policeman. Sean Maher, who played the doctor on “Firefly,” is delightfully wicked as the evil John. I had only seen Alexis Denisof before as the cheesy news anchor Sandy Rivers on “How I Met Your Mother.” It's fun to see him here as the clever rogue Benedick.

At the end of the day, Whedon's “Much Ado About Nothing” is a fun piece of fluff. This will not live as the definitive version of the play, but then again, it was filmed for almost nothing at Joss Whedon's house, with no budget for costumes and presumably friends-and-family salaries for the actors. This isn't for everyone, but for those who love the Bard and Joss Whedon, it's a fun couple of hours.

3 stars out of 5

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