Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Sh!#ting on the Classics: William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet

William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet (1996)

Okay, this one writes itself.

I have despised Romeo + Juliet since it was first released. I have taken every opportunity to badmouth this film for the last 15 years. I will go into my “anti-Baz rant” at the drop of any hat in my Film Studies class. I hate this film, and you should too.

 I have no problem with different interpretations of Shakespeare, but let’s agree to leave the language alone. The minute one starts to mess with the words, it is better to just rewrite the whole shebang, citing “based on” rather than “by.” I have no quarrel with films like West Side Story or Valley Girl, both clearly inspired by Romeo and Juliet, but rewritten for more modern times.

Herein lies Romeo + Juliet’s most nefarious flaw. Even that title seems a simpleton’s declaration: “Hey Olde Man, that tired conjunction ‘and’ might be fine for your father’s Shakespeare, but we are so cool and so smart and so hip and so stupid, we used a PLUS SIGN! Word!”

This film egregiously plays with Shakespeare’s language, cynically trying to rope in both literary stalwarts (who are coming for the play) and teen neophytes (who are coming for Leonardo DiCaprio).

Speaking of which, “Neon47” on the Internet Movie Database writes, “Leo does a great job as Romeo, but that's because Leo is a good actor in this film.” Well, who can argue with that logic? Apparently, “Neon47’s” doctors regard him as “mentally challenged,” but that’s because “Neon47” is “borderline retarded” on the internet.

Oddly, though the weaponry in the film has been updated to handguns and AK47s, Luhrman retains Shakespeare’s references to “rapiers” and “daggers.” The filmmakers instead use idiot zooms to show us that the guns are branded “Sword 9mm” and the like, so that Benvolio can still shout, “Put up your swords.” Get it?

It is a moron’s idea of cleverness.

Early in the film Lord Capulet shouts, “Give me my broadsword, ho!” In Shakespeare’s day, “ho” was a simple interjection, but given this new delirious context, Capulet seems here to be calling his wife a “ho.”  Ho ho, Ho.

Luhrmann and his evil band take lines from one act of the play and inappropriately place them in another. During the Capulet party scene, Romeo takes a drug proffered to him by Mercutio. He mutters, “Thy drugs are quick.” WTF? That line is from Act Five, after Romeo drinks the poison (I hope you’re taking notes, there will be a short quiz at the end of this essay.) In the theatre, “adaptation” is finding a viable interpretation for the play as written – it is NOT changing the play to fit your own questionable interpretation. Why not just have the characters swear? Sure! Take the letter “F” from one act, the letter “U” from another… etc…. put them all together… Viola! Artistry of the first order. Also, barf.

In Shakespeare’s version, Friar Laurence’s message of great import is prevented from getting to Romeo because the plague has sealed off an entire town.  In Luhrmann’s lunatic update, Friar Laurence sends the message Fed Ex.  Romeo never hears the Fed Ex driver ringing his doorbell BECAUSE HE IS IN THE BACKYARD HITTING A ROCK WITH A STICK.

Have I mentioned that, in this “version,” Mercutio is a drag queen? No? Good.

DiCaprio and Claire Danes struggle mightily with the famous balcony scene, but here too they are undone by Luhrmann’s incessant reinvention. Halfway through those immortal lines, Luhrmann has the two star-crossed lovers fall into a pool. Why? Because for more than four hundred years, theatre audiences have been saying, “Yes, that balcony scene is really great, but imagine how much awesomer it would be if they both got… SOAKING WET!” What’s next – Taming of the Shrew staged under a sprinkler? The Gallagher “watch out for the watermelon squishin’s!” version of King Lear?

“Dude! Friday night is Wet T-Shirt Macbeth night at Whiskey McSanchez!”

The rest of the cast list reads, well, like a list of actors who have done better work under other directors:  John Leguizamo, Paul Sorvino, Brian Dennehy, Paul Rudd, Peter Postlewaite, M. Emmet Walsh, Vonde Curtis-Hall, and Harold Perrineau. A good cast, wasted. One critic remarked when the film was first released that for some reason every actor either mumbles…or shouts.

I am often accused of elitism. My colleagues often ask me what is wrong with using this film as an accessible introduction to Shakespeare: “Wouldn’t you rather students see this rather than no Shakespeare at all?”

If the choice is between Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet or no Shakespeare at all, I am afraid that I choose no Shakespeare at all, ho.

Better Yet: Wonderful film versions of Shakespeare’s plays abound. I am particularly fond of Zeffirelli’s 1968 version of Romeo and Juliet, though it is severely abridged. Kenneth Branagh established a cottage industry doing fine film adaptations of Shakespeare. His Henry V (1989) and Hamlet (1996) are both excellent and faithful to their source. Branagh’s Much Ado About Nothing (1993) is something of a mixed bag. When he and then-wife Emma Thompson are on screen, it is among the finest adaptations. When Robert Sean Leonard is on screen, it is a decent college production. When Keanu Reeves speaks, it is the worst high school play ever.


  1. Oh, but the soundtrack to R+J is amazing. I actually liked Mel Gibson's Hamlet better than Branagh's, and I would take Reeves' performance in Much Ado over Robert Sean Leonard's anytime. Robert destroyed that movie.

  2. I can certainly see why you would enjoy the soundtrack music, but again I would argue that there is so much of it in the film itself, it too becomes a mask or a crutch. We could argue that Gibson had an easier job of it, as he only had to perform 60% of the original play. On the Reeves vs. Leonard issue, I will gladly call that a draw. BTW, Reeves actually played the title role in Hamlet many years ago in Canada. One critic remarked, "The most charitable thing I can say about Mr. Reeves' performance is that he said all of the words in the right order."

  3. As I noted on Twitter, Mercutio wearing drag (FOR A COSTUME PARTY, I'D LIKE TO NOTE) fits his mercurial and brash personality. Quite well played by Harold "WAAAALT!" Perrineau.

  4. Right, but if Shakespeare had wanted him in a dress, he would have indicated that. Of course, all the women's parts were originally played by boys in drag, so that would have gotten confusing. Never mind.

  5. "Viola!"
    Just brilliant.
    If you now tell me that was a typo my heart will shatter.