William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet

(USA 1996)

“My only love sprung from my only hate.”

—Juliet Capulet

I don’t usually read reviews when I write my entries here, but sometimes I can’t resist checking what critics had to say about older movies when they first hit theaters back in the day. Roger Ebert did not like this one, which he called “a mess” and “a very bad idea” (http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/romeo-and-juliet-1996). I respectfully disagree; Baz Luhrmann’s overblown and over the top take on Shakespeare’s (probably) best known play is, in a word, awesome—even with 20 years’ wear.

William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet definitely is not your lit teacher’s Shakespeare: set in hyper-paced, decaying fictitious Verona Beach on the verge of the Millennium, Luhrmann reimagines the feuding Montagues and Capulets as two family corporate empires embrolied in a turf war. They act like cartels: Romeo’s cousin Benvolio (Dash Mihok) and Juliet’s cousin Tybalt (John Leguizamo) brawl at a gas station, wrecking havok in the city. Instead of knives, their weapons are guns with brand names “Dagger” and “Sword” embossed on them. Chief of Police Captain Prince (Vondie Curtis-Hall) warns family heads Ted Montague (Brian Dennehy) and Fulgencio Capulet (Paul Sorvino) to get their boys under control, or there will be hell to pay.

That evening, Romeo (Leonardo DiCaprio), Benvolio, and Mercutio (Harold Perrineau) take ecstasy and crash a costume party at the Capulet mansion, where prima donna Mrs. Capulet (Diane Venora) has arranged an introduction between Juliet (Claire Danes, who you oughta know emulates Alanis Morissette) and governor’s son Dave Paris (Paul Rudd dressed as an astronaut). Drawn to a blacklit aquarium in the bathroom, rolling Romeo, literally a knight in shining armor, sees Juliet in angel wings on the other side. Thus begins the fateful downfall of the star-crossed lovers, aided by Fr. Laurence (Pete Postlewaite).

William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet injects new life into a classic. Laying the groundwork for 2000’s Moulin Rouge!, everything about it is bold and flamboyant—especially the choice to stick mostly with the play’s original prose. Luhrmann mixes a headspinning cocktail of English literature, Alexander McQueen, Quentin Tarantino, and MTV to create an apocalyptic assault on the senses. He combines outrageous sets (including a crumbling movie theater on the beach that provides the perfect stage for some of the action), religious imagery, sexy thugs, car chases, a drag performance, newscasts, and hip tunage into a whirl of color, noise, and poetry. Donald M. McAlpine’s cinematography is downright decadent. The soundtrack is strong: it boasts, among other acts, Radiohead, Everclear, Garbage, Butthole Surfers, and of course the Cardigans with their only U.S. chart hit, “Lovefool.”

I can see why purists and old fogies will pass on this adaptation. I, however, love it. William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet isn’t perfect, but it’s wickedly clever, fun, and never dull.

120 minutes
Rated PG-13

(Gene Siskel Film Center) B+

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