As usual, this review is scheduled to show up at 10:00 AM. It’s perfect timing in this case, because five minutes later, my Honors Literature class starts. Only because of this class did I give Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet a second viewing (but, since he and DiCaprio are collaborating again next summer, I guess that’s another justification), as I must bore myself with Shakespeare’s original text later this year. I did love the film upon initial viewing, but it quickly left my mind, strangely enough. I wish I hadn’t been reminded of it, because now, my opinion of the film has suddenly changed.
Bottom Line: More like Shakurspeare than Shakespeare.
Directed by: Baz Luhrmann
Starring: Brian Dennehy, Claire Danes, Harold Perrineau, John Leguizamo, Leonardo DiCaprio, Miriam Margolyes, Paul Rudd, Paul Sorvino, Pete Postlethwaite, Vondie Curtis-Hall
William Shakespeare wrote his tragedy Romeo and Juliet circa late 16th century, and to this day, the fable remains one of the most influential stories ever told. I’d be surprised if there were one literate human being on this earth who did not know the basic story by heart. We may not notice it, but the romance genre is replete with the “forbidden love” theme Shakespeare conceived. Sometimes, the nod is more faithful to the originating plot than to the mere concept (West Side Story); others, not so much (My Big Fat Greek Wedding). Romeo + Juliet is not completely destroyed by the fact that Shakespeare’s signature iambic pentameter is kept, and thus forcing the characters to speak in rhyme. We don’t want a Nicholas Sparks precursor, so to speak, with “star-crossed lovers” claiming their names are Romeo Montague and Juliet Capulet; if wholehearted faith to the Bard’s olden speech pattern is what it takes to prove this is a pure adaptation of Shakespeare, then so be it. Furthermore, the problem does not lie in the fact that this is a modernization. Can I make it any more clear that I was very impressed by Ethan Hawke’s demonstration of Hamlet, and that Coriolanus is one of my favorite films made this year? The problem, my friends, is simply everything else, or almost everything else.
I respect that Baz Luhrmann has a distinctly ostentatious style. Luhrmann can be identified directly through his work on such showy dance flicks as Moulin Rouge! and Strictly Ballroom. Unfortunately, his style is so profusely plunged into Romeo + Juliet, and the flashy results clash with the story’s melancholia. The rapid editing, absurd variety of costume designs, and MTV-esque title overlays bleed on the film so pompously, we can’t take the story seriously when it welcomes a more dramatic side into its latter half. Tears from both lovers fail to mean anything to an audience at this point, so we’re left with the dull, standard charm of a “chick flick”. Not only is this against how Shakespeare would have wanted his works seen four centuries later, it doesn’t make much sense.
Which brings me to the reshaping of the story. Again, I have nothing against modernizing Shakespeare, per se. It’s when a modernization becomes a bastardization that all cinematic hell breaks loose. Clearly, much more time was devoted to visual pizzazz than constructing a sensible screenplay, the fault of both Luhrmann and his co-writer Craig Pearce. We have the addition of newer technological advancements, such as pistols and automobiles, as well as an updated Verona, Italy, the residence of Romeo (Leonardo DiCaprio), his cousins/homies, Juliet (Claire Danes), her wealthy parents, and a nurse that seems more like a mentor. The update is very strange and provides several unintended laughs. Let’s leave it simple: the hip-hop culture depicted is far too exaggerated to be remotely accurate.
Romeo + Juliet isn’t a Shakespearean film. It’s a film for MTV addicts who, quite frankly, couldn’t care much less about Shakespeare. It’s a Baztardization of Shakespeare, if I may be so upfront. Ironically, it tries to show off its beauty so pretentiously and gratuitously, I can’t envision such MTV fiends watching it without shunning it. And now it’s in my head like a parasite…if I may quote Lady Macbeth in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, “Out, damned spot!”