Romeo + Juliet (1996)

I went into Romeo+Juliet knowing I’d have to keep an open mind. We tend to become attached to our “firsts,” and as my first was Franco Zeffirelli’s peerless 1968 version, I knew I might need to work a little to like Baz Luhrmann’s.

To be perfectly honest, I was excited by the beginning of Romeo+Juliet; it was fast-paced, cool, innovative. The prologue read as a breaking news story was a good choice, if not a bit obvious. No one had done it yet, though, so — good for Baz.

I genuinely loved Luhrmann’s concept. The guns labeled as swords (with names like RAPIER 9mm and DAGGER 9mm), the “Verona Beach” California setup, the gangland-style Montague vs Capulet license plates — all fabulous. The clans of Montague and Capulet are cast as competing business empires, their names plastered on skyscrapers and billboards a la Donald Trump

Much has been made of the film’s manic camera movements and editing. So, I won’t say anything of the dizzying cinematography, other than that it is, at times, dizzying. It’s a stylistic choice that Luhrmann made, and it does work at times with the film’s surrealist elements.

Mercutio’s DAGGER 9mm

The bright color scheme in Romeo+Juliet also works well for Luhrmann’s vision, making it a movie I’d recommend for the partially colorblind seeking a thrill. Luhrmann’s bright color palette (imagine the love child of Fear and Loathing and Finding Nemo) works to bolster those surrealist elements, as well as the over-the-top dia de los muertos-style religious iconography, and of course, Romeo’s lurid hand-painted silk Hawiian shirts. It’s all very kitschy, but it is kitschy in a way that was a definite stylistic choice on Luhrmann’s part. (To be objective, I’m putting aside a deep personal hatred of brightly colored shirts.)

The films issues are twofold as far as I can see. One is with consistency in vision. The other is the acting.

It was confusing the way the movie seemed to vacillate between its eccentric quirky surrealism and “playing it straight,” which made the whole movie seem disjointed. I liked the surreal quality of the movie and wish they had bravely committed to it. As characters, Romeo and Juliet were played so straight as to be saccharine and boring, the only notable exceptions being when Romeo drops ecstasy before the Capulet’s party, and in Juliet’s suicide method.

The choice to play Romeo and Juliet so down-the-middle baffles me, when other characters had quirks and twists that were so much more interesting. I enjoyed Count Paris portrayed as a goony Jared Kushner-type. I liked that Mercutio went to the Capulet party in drag. I liked Tybalt as a steel-toed steel-heeled wearing Spanglified gangster. I liked Juliet’s nurse as the stereotypical Spanish nanny.

But while there are nice things to say about Luhrmann’s stylistic choices, I was seriously underwhelmed (and at times traumatized) by the acting. Watching the opening scene, a highly stylized and innovative opening sequence (a gun fight at a gas station), I had the distracting and unrelenting suspicion that the actors didn’t understand a single word coming out of their mouths. They were all just shouting lines at each other. And to be clear, it wasn’t the over-the-top intensity that bothered me— it could have worked well if the actors had understood the scene. The shouting and rapid-fire unintelligible dialogue was a crutch so that they didn’t have to.

When the prince of Verona (in this version the city’s chief of police) showed up and had lines I breathed a sigh of relief. I was unfamiliar with Vondie Curtis-Hall, but I found in him a very able Shakespearean. He was well-cast, and whenever he spoke I was grateful to see someone so responsible with Shakespeare’s verse. Another in this camp was Harold Perrineau in the role of Mercutio. Of all the young actors in this movie, he was by far the best.

Harold Perrineau as Mercutio in drag

I saved the subject of Claire Danes and Leonardo DiCaprio for last, because I’m going to say things that may make some people despise me.

Claire Danes and Leonardo DiCaprio were not good. There seems to be a lot of controversy on the internet about this, but — there, I said it.

However, I will also say that it wasn’t their fault. More on that later.

Sometimes their line deliveries were acceptable, and a few – a very few – were good. In general though, their lines were either flat, overwrought, or just uninspired. Claire Danes was seventeen when they filmed R+J so I suppose there’s an excuse for her not being a fabulous Shakespearean actor. It was her first big movie, and Shakespeare is hard. I have nothing against Claire Danes (She’s great in Homeland, in which she plays a bipolar CIA agent), but when Baz Luhrmann calls Danes at 16 years old “the Meryl Streep of her generation” let’s face it — that is a ridiculous thing to say. Also, Meryl Streep is the Meryl Streep of Claire Danes’ generation. The statement says more about Luhrmann than it does about Danes.

I’m not so forgiving of Leo DiCaprio’s sins as I am of Claire Danes’. DiCaprio looks to be about fifteen years old in R+J, but don’t be fooled. He was twenty-one during filming — old enough to be tried for murdering Shakespeare’s lines as an adult. I’ve heard that he’s an amazing actor nowadays, but I wouldn’t know. I’ve managed to somehow avoid every movie he’s been in, including Titanic.

The reality is, the young actors in R+J weren’t coached as they should have been. Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey were sixteen and fifteen when they played Romeo and Juliet in 1968 for Zeffirelli— far younger than Danes and DiCaprio. But Zeffirelli sat around and talked Shakespeare with these kids and had them live in the lines for like, an entire year before they filmed the movie. And it shows. Luhrmann however put his cart before the horse. Once he had the substance of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet handled, he could have concentrated on doing it in the context of his own vision, and with his own particular spin. Instead, what resulted was an unwieldy mess.

It wasn’t only the younger characters who weren’t directed particularly well. Juliet’s mother for example is played as a completely different personality type from scene to scene. One moment she is portrayed as a silly, frivolous woman, and the next as a serious mother figure. People don’t work that way, and neither do Shakespeare’s characters. She was played to suit what Luhrmann wanted to do stylistically from scene to scene, at the expense of being a cohesive character.

There are parts of this movie that are good, particularly in the visual and conceptual departments. There are some great images and stylistic choices. But my final conviction is that the movie merely had potential to be great, but potential is all it was, and I think it’s time all highschool professors admit it.

My suspicion is that Luhrmann never fully commits to a tone because he got caught halfway between executing his own vision, and trying to do a real, respectable Shakespeare production. The sad part is, he could have done both.

It won’t kill you to watch it, but I will say that the amatuerish way the lines are delivered makes the language harder to understand than it needs to be. And for that reason alone, it shouldn’t be anyone’s “first” Romeo and Juliet. For that, there’s always Zeffirelli.

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