by Rob DiCristino
Many contemporary reviews of Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet decried it an affront to Shakespeare’s legendary tragedy, an ill-advised attempt to make Elizabethan theater appealing to the MTV generation. Roger Ebert called it “a very bad idea,” specifically citing Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes as actors “in over their heads” and unable to convey the true grace and beauty of the Bard’s poetry. Entertainment Weekly called the film blasphemous, a “glib, futuristic action cartoon” that ramps up the camp value so far that it becomes unrecognizable as Western literature’s great love story. Variety said that it lacks the emotional resonance of Franco Zeffierelli’s 1968 version, while The Washington Post protested that its visual style “overpowers the verbal poetry — which used to be the most important aspect of a Shakespeare play.” Romeo + Juliet’s fiercest critics tended to agree that Luhrmann’s manic, overwrought adaptation was a juvenile embarrassment that stood in stark contrast to the source material’s somber dramatics. Every one of them was wrong.
As in Shakespeare’s original, everyone in Romeo + Juliet is suffering from a debilitating case of horniness. We open on a joyride-turned-shootout between bawdy streetgangs — who refer to their hand cannons as “blades” and “daggers” in preservation of Shakespeare’s phallic imagery — that crescendos in a glorious peacock routine from Leguizamo’s flamboyant Prince of Cats. The scene then turns to a lovelorn Romeo, whose recent rejection by Rosaline has sent him into a Sexy Beachfront Depression. DiCaprio’s whiny, exasperated line delivery is entirely in keeping with Romeo’s mercurial nature, as his complaints about Rosaline’s resistance to his noble peen are forgotten as soon as Juliet appears. Next enters the ostentatious Mercutio (a stunning Harold Perrineau), whose freewheeling charisma is complimented in this version by his gender-bending style. He ends his famous “Queen Mab” speech — that of a fairy who inspires dreams of love — by offering Romeo a tab of ecstasy, more obvious Shakepearan subtext made literal.