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Our review of Romeo + Juliet, published August 26th, 1999, is also available.
The greatest love story the world has ever known.
"Did my heart love 'til now? Forswear its sight. For I never saw true beauty 'til this night."
Facts of the Case
The time: the mid-1990s.
The place: In fair Verona. Um, Verona Beach, that is.
The situation: So, the Capulets and Montagues are big-time rivals. Fulgencio (Paul Sorvino, The Cooler) and Gloria Capulet (Diane Venora, Heat) have been feuding with Ted (Brian Dennehy, First Blood) and Caroline Montague (Christina Pickles, Masters of the Universe) for many years, and their feud is carried out by the young relatives of each couple. The Montague boys are led by the dense-but-violent Benvolio (Dash Mihok, The Perfect Storm), while the Capulet boys are led by the seething Tybalt (John Leguizamo, Carlito's Way). The violence between the two families is starting to get out of control, causing Police Captain Prince (Vondie Curtis-Hall, Chicago Hope) to issue a stern warning to both sides.
Fulgencio and Gloria have a young daughter named Juliet, who mostly tries to avoid the turbulent drama that occupies so much of her family's time. She's being wooed by a young man named Dave Paris (Paul Rudd, I Love You, Man), but she isn't particularly interested in him. One night at a party, Juliet meets Romeo (Leonardo DiCaprio, Titanic), a handsome young man with a charming personality. Unfortunately, Romeo is the son of Ted and Caroline, making him the last man on the planet Juliet should be seeing. The young lovers are initially alarmed to learn of each other's identities, but their feelings for each other are too strong to ignore. After brief "getting to know you" period, Romeo and Juliet marry in secret, setting off a chain of tragic events.
Baz Luhrmann's adaptation of William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet is a bold, daring film that fearlessly attempts to make an aging tale relevant for a new audience. Of the many anachronistic Shakespeare adaptations, Romeo + Juliet is one of the most daring and experimental. It remains faithful to the language but infuses almost every other element of the production with modern energy. There's only one problem: it doesn't work.
Now, before you jump on me for being a stuffy old Shakespeare purist who hates new ideas, let me assure you that I have absolutely nothing against Luhrmann's attempt to transplant Shakespeare's play to present-day Verona Beach. It's a neat concept, and many of the best Shakespeare adaptations are those that dramatically change the setting (consider Richard Loncraine's pre-WWII Richard III or Julie Taymor's breathtaking Titus). However, this particular play is nothing if not deeply emotional, and Luhrmann's frantic direction offers just about everything other than genuine emotion. As a result, we're left with a film that feels like a hollow gimmick; more interesting as an experiment in adaptation than as a dramatic experience.
As the film opens, one begins to wonder if they're in for two hours of unfiltered insanity. Luhrmann opens the movie in a hyperactive, MTV-inspired manner featuring pounding rock music, jumpy editing, squealing gangsters and a pink-haired Jamie Kennedy (Son of the Mask). While this style might drive the timid away, one has to give Luhrmann credit for the goofy boldness of his opening act ("You think this story is boring? Well, have you ever seen it with gunshots and explosions? KAPOW! ELECTRIC GUITAR RIFF!"). The film might have worked on some sort of adrenaline-fueled surface level if Luhrmann had stuck to his guns (so to speak) all the way through, but then things settle down and the movie becomes unsure of itself.
The film's most noteworthy sequence is the one which transplants the famous balcony scene to Juliet's swimming pool. After delivering some of their initial lines, the two lovers fall into the pool, spewing elegantly romantic phrases at each other as they tread water. Luhrmann's camera is alarmingly low-key during this sequence; simply observing the two lovers in long, unbroken shots. It's clear that the director wants us to take this seriously, even if some of the romantic moments are unintentionally humorous (the wedding scene underscored by "When Doves Cry," for instance). There's a distinct disconnect between the romantic moments and the rest of the movie, which is meant to be a smart artistic decision but which actually gives the movie pacing problems.
That would be forgivable if the romantic scenes actually worked, but they don't. Well, let me clarify—they don't work well enough. Yes, Romeo and Juliet seem like nice kids who genuinely like each other, but their love has to be more than that. It has to be something so profoundly consuming that we buy the idea they will die for each other, much less get married without really knowing each other very well. While DiCaprio and Danes do share some nice chemistry, the plot of Romeo + Juliet requires something more. Unfortunately, the film is incapable of delivering that, meaning that the tragic final moments feel like a forced attempt to stay true to the source material rather than a natural turn of events.
The performances are a mixed bag, which is to be expected given some of the casting decisions. Of the two leads, Danes fares the best, rarely missing a beat as a cheerful Juliet. DiCaprio seems to raise his game during his scenes with her, but struggles a bit the rest of the time. Many of the actors (including DiCaprio during his weaker scenes) seem to have difficulty figuring out how to perform Shakespeare's distinctive writing—they know the words, but not the music. It's admittedly a very difficult task, so I don't want to waste time berating the cast members for failing at this, but Luhrmann and his fellow filmmakers should have ensured that every role was filled by capable actors. Jamie Kennedy, Paul Rudd, Paul Sorvino and M. Emmett Walsh seem to have a particularly rough time with their lines, while Pete Postelthwaite (Clash of the Titans), Vondie Curtis-Hall and Miriam Margolyes (Balto) handle the writing with ease.
Romeo + Juliet arrives on Blu-ray sporting a respectable 1080p/2.40:1 transfer. In some ways, it looks like a brand-new film, with colors that pop off the screen and deep blacks, but the level of detail is occasionally hampered by the general softness of the transfer (some of this is entirely due to the manner in which the film was shot). It's not going to rock your world, but it gets the job done nicely. More impressive is the sound, which occasionally hits room-rattling level of chaos while also presenting the soft, understated scenes with nuance and clarity. Fortunately, you'll rarely feel the need to adjust your audio.
The primary supplement is a new "Shaking Up Shakespeare" BonusView mode, which mixes the old audio commentary featuring Luhrmann and assorted crew members with text info, still photos, video snippets, song credits and more. You even have the option to click on additional pods for bonus video bits throughout the proceedings. The material ranges from the trivial to the sublime, but overall it's a cool bonus. "The Bazmark Vault" presents a series of four very brief featurettes: "First Kiss" (2 minutes), "Beach Scene" (4 minutes), "Uncut Rehearsals" (5 minutes) and "Outside Romeo" (3 minutes). "The Music Gallery" presents my favorite extra, "Romeo + Juliet: The Music Documentary" (49 minutes), which details the creation of the soundtrack in an exhilaratingly thorough manner. If only every soundtrack received such loving attention. You also get "Everybody's Free: The Journey of the Song" (2 minutes), "The London Music Mix" (4 minutes) and "Temp Music: The Journey of the Song" (2 minutes). "The Director's Gallery" presents another batch of brief featurettes: "Impact" (4 minutes), "Why Shakespeare?" (3 minutes), "Pitching Shakespeare" (10 minutes), "Directing the Gas Station" (7 minutes), "Directing the Pool Scene" (5 minutes) and "Tybalt's Execution" (4 minutes). Next up is "The Director of Photography's Gallery," offering five one-minute featurettes: "A Hole in the Wall," "The Fish Tank Scene," "Filming the Lift Scene," "One Light" and "Filming the Church." Finally, you get a batch of interviews with most of the primary cast members that run less than three minutes each. Oh, and there's a theatrical trailer. Whew!
I'm not quite sold on Romeo + Juliet as a film, but fans should be pleased to note that it looks good, sounds great and comes with a huge supplemental package. If you're a fan it's worth an upgrade.
The film is guilty of failing to successfully transplant Shakespeare's romantic tragedy to the modern world, but the Blu-ray release is free to go.
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