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Although the hot movie topic for the past year has been Jane Austen, it really should have been William Shakespeare. True, four of Austen's novels have recently been adapted to the screen, but she hasn't been nearly as omnipresent as the Bard of Avon nor, Clueless aside, quite so contemporary. Shakespeare has reared his head in a number of incarnations: With Ian McKellen in a stellar version of Richard III; Lawrence Fishburne in a muddled treatment of Othello; Kenneth Branagh's early Christmas present, an unabridged adaptation of Hamlet and his Hamlet parody from last winter, A Midwinter's Tale; and the upcoming cross-dressing comedy Twelfth Night, Shakespeare is thriving. His two most recent cinematic visits--reinterpretations of Romeo & Juliet and Richard III--look like promising retoolings of some classics; sadly, neither achieves greatness.
That which the studios call William Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet, by any other name, would smell as fishy. Although Baz Luhrmann's modern-day love story begins with a TV news show summarizing the plot as the kind of buzzy expose Marty Griffin might do, the dialogue comes straight from the 16th century. This isn't the first adaptation of Romeo & Juliet's overwrought love affair told in an urban idiom--West Side Story did it with song-and-dance Puerto Ricans vs. Italians 40 years ago--but it stays very close to the original text. (It isn't too literal an adaptation; I don't recall any college professors mentioning an all-boys choir singing "When Doves Cry" at the Old Globe.) With an energetic inventiveness, the smart-alecky Luhrmann has reconfigured the infamous teenage love story as the Crips vs. the Bloods--the oily, foreign, drug-dealing Capulets teeing off against the sleazy, white trash nouveau riche Montagues. Trapped in between these feuding factions are our star-crossed heroes: Romeo (Leonardo DiCaprio), cast here as a Gen Xer toking on cigarettes and recording his thoughts in a little notebook like a latter-day beatnik, the new Ginsberg or Kerouac; and Juliet (Claire Danes), a restless virgin who, like most teenage girls, spends the majority of her waking hours being embarrassed by her family.
It's a forced fit--the images never seem to decide on whether they should be MTV or CNN--but for a hour or more, it works. That's largely due to Luhrmann's canny decision to mock Romeo & Juliet's cliche-riddled plot and to concentrate on the aspects that make it what it is: a deliciously cheesy melodrama. One of the worst mistakes a director can make is to treat this play as a great tragic romance. Shakespeare doesn't explore the myriad complexities of genuine tragedy here with anything approaching the resourcefulness and meaning as, say, King Lear or Macbeth. Instead, the reason Romeo & Juliet has endured has far less to do with plotting and character development than it does with simple familiarity, a forbidden-fruit syndrome cast as a love affair. This is not a play of sweeping romanticism (Much Ado about Nothing's Claudio and Hero tell a far more poignant tale), but one of basic, unsophisticated emotions: Romeo and Juliet are horny young teens; they fall in love with each other--the only two verboten paramours in Verona; and in defiance of their clans, each swears everlasting love. As an essentially banal tale of morbidly self-destructive puppy love, it works precisely because every teenager goes through these awkward years, and most live to be embarrassed by the silliness of it all; Romeo and Juliet did not, and therein lies the powerful subtext. It is not the beauty of a single, eternal love Shakespeare chronicles, but the folly of it, one occasioned by families whose mutual animus inevitably added the one element--a sense of danger--that led to adolescent recklessness and, ultimately, to tragedy.
That's why Luhrmann's initial conception of Romeo & Juliet actually manages to succeed, and why his eventual rejection of its campy, cautionary nature by the end robs the movie of a consistent tone and message. How marvelous it is of him to see that in 1996, Juliet's mom (Diane Venora) would be a Tennessee Williams-style grande dame of iron--a pill-popping, alcoholic, one-size-up-from-anemic-kidney-failure social climber. (She fits the portrait of the "social x-rays" Tom Wolfe describes in The Bonfire of the Vanities.) It takes both wit and ballsiness to cast Mercutio as a black drag queen, to give Benvolio a brush cut and shoulder holster, and to make Tybalt (John Leguizamo) as esse in steel-heeled shitkickers obsessed with being dissed. And DiCaprio, who always plays sensitive poets, perfectly projects the wounded soul of the heartsick puppy dog that Romeo is. Luhrmann's only weak link is in his interpretation of Juliet, a thankless, nondescript role best played as a mix of carnality and innocence: part frail and ethereal virgin, part giddy schoolgirl with a freshman crush. Danes is miscast on both scores. Her Juliet seems singularly disinterested in Romeo most of the time, and although Danes has a radiant face, she seems to rush through her lines without fully understanding them. There's nothing to her performance for the audience to grab ahold of almost until the end, and so Romeo's fascination and our connection never take shape.
For a while, the style threatens to overwhelm the substance; Luhrmann manages to meld the two, and the result is John Woo's sense of subtlety and symbolism. It's only as it begins to wind down that Romeo & Juliet gets noticeably less fun, and the gaudy, rude campiness that anointed it with midnight-movie cult status all but disappears. In the final analysis, Luhrmann blows the big chance he seemed to challenge himself to--making the first totally subversive Shakespeare--and instead plays it for straight pathos. Considering how contemporary a story he was aiming for, couldn't he have fiddled around with the play even more? Wouldn't it have been better, after Romeo takes poison, for Juliet to perform CPR, or call 911? Hasn't she ever heard of the Heimlich maneuver?
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