Every week this summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to one of the weekend's wide releases. This week: you'd have to have a pretty demented sense of the word "original" to claim that Australian arch-stylist Baz Luhrmann has to date made any film with an original plot, but The Great Gatsby is only his second for-real legitimate adaptation. The last time he did it was also with a wildly familiar text that everybody read in high school.
William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet! Released in 1996, it's something of a bridge between the Shakespeare boom that happened in the wake of Kenneth Branagh's 1989 version of Henry V and the short-lived but intense "updating Shakespeare for modern-day teens" craze that it largely inspired; along with Clueless, it augured in the new era of classic literature in modern dress films that lasted well into the 2000s; it accidentally made the interesting young actor Leonardo DiCaprio a teenybopper idol until he made enough auteur-driven movies in the early '00s to redeem himself; it made enough money and had enough cultural cachet that director Baz Luhrmann was able to make, on a studio budget, the insanely idiosyncratic and strange Moulin Rouge!; it is the reason for every song that got too much play on the radio in 1997; and for at least a short time in their lives, it was the favorite movie of every American girl born between 1981 and 1985.
Speaking as someone who A) saw Moulin Rouge! first, and B) loves Moulin Rouge! enough to count it among my 10 desert island movies, I will confess that I've never been able to approach Romeo + Juliet without lapsing into the idea that everything that is best about it is still not as good as when Luhrmann did it again in that subsequent film, five years later, and everything that is bad about Romeo + Juliet is bad enough to cause some serious problems. At the same time, the movie has aged well, far better than anything that shrieks "MID-'90s, Y'ALL!" so vigorously in every facet of its setting, its cast, and oh my God its soundtrack had any right to. If nothing else, the degree to which Luhrmann's favored style in what he'd eventually call his Red Curtain Trilogy (beginning with his first feature, 1992's Strictly Ballroom) has become sufficiently normalised in the 12 years since it ended that this film's bright and sassy travestying of Shakespeare feels more like an aesthetic choice and less like misfiring kitsch. I will say this: I liked the movie more this time than any previous viewing, and some of the things I had previously hated the most struck me now as being among the most effective elements.
That being said, there's plenty in the film that doesn't quite land, and the film suffers grievously from its extreme literalness, which is a strange claim to make of a movie in which Shakespeare's pair of star-crossed lovers are transplanted to a gang-decimated city on the Florida coast. But it's there anyway: having hit upon the idea of doing one of the most famous plays in the history of drama in a super-hyper-modern style, Luhrmann and co-adapter Craig Pearce don't bring that idea to its logical conclusion, but keep hedging their bets, typically in small but endlessly irritating ways: there are references to "swords" in the text, so we have to have a close-up of a handgun to see that it was manufactured by the Sword company; and there's so many bits and pieces of scenes that feel less like clever attempts to smuggle Shakespeare into the world of 1996, than the bend the world of 1996 to fit vocabulary literally centuries out of date. Of course, Luhrmann being Luhrmann, it's not only possible but likely that the "Look at me! Do you see all the weird little things I'm doing to call attention to how this is a modern-day adaptation!" trickery is 100% intentional. The dominant mode of the Red Curtain films is of calculated artifice, an attempt to push the audience away from the project through contrivance, but also use those contrivances to explore huge, elemental emotions. This worked astoundingly well in Moulin Rouge!, and it's so much less aggressive in Strictly Ballroom that it doesn't matter; Romeo + Juliet, I think, is a little bit too much of a halfway measure, and while it nails the alienation from the text, it only sporadically manages to reconnect back on an emotional level.
Or that's how I see it; those adolescent girls in 1996 clearly disagree with me. Which is more than legitimate, in this case. The film takes the signifiers of teen culture as it stood in 1996, and running Shakespeare through them, so that the very famous but very old-fashioned and very over-familiar story could be violently shaken up and recontextualised for those same teens - it's an attempt to cinematically depict the emotional anarchism of first love using Shakespeare as a tool, basically (it's much the same as the use of pop songs in Moulin Rouge!). Lord knows, I'm a fan of doing anything at all to violently shake up over-familiar stories, and there's absolutely no doubt that Romeo + Juliet does the most important thing that any Shakespeare adaptation can do: it makes the material seem fresh and unexpected (and it does the next most important thing, too: its scene structure feels more cinematic than theatrical. This is a desperately rare thing, though less so in the post-Branagh era of Shakespeare movies than before). It does this using such an extremely specific rhetorical device, though, that I think it's fair to claim that one's ability to fully engage with the material, post-shakeup, is entirely based on one's emotional attachment to same teen culture it wallows in. Put simply: you're not likely to regard Romeo + Juliet as truly great cinema unless the song "Lovefool" stirs your soul.
Shall we back away from all that, and just take the thing as a wildly stylised version of a classic play? Thanks. As far as Shakespeare goes, the biggest block that Romeo + Juliet faces isn't its urgent modernity, but its cast, very few of whom are consistently able to handle the Elizabethan dialogue without missing a stitch. The best, by such an indescribable margin that he could just as easily be in a different movie entirely, is Pete Postlethwaite as Father Laurence. Candidates for the worst include just about everyone in the cast: in the title roles, DiCaprio and Claire Danes manage their lines more effectively than a lot of people, but they have so much more to do than anyone else that even just a few slipups, where it becomes clear that they're not entirely sure what they are saying, or what it means (this happens to Danes more than DiCaprio) add up to something a little bit ruinous. I have in the past greatly disliked Miriam Margolyes's broadly wacky Latina take on the nurse, but with the gimmick being more a fault of the writing and directing, I think there's plenty of little nuance to her performance in and of itself that works awfully well. Nobody else manages to do much more than blast through with as much energy as Luhrmann could rip out of them; John Leguizamo's Tybalt, for example, and certainly Harold Perrineau's Mercutio might be variously disastrous, cartoon takes on the figures, but they sure as hell commit to those interpretations, and ride them hard as can be through the director's kaleidoscopic staging of the material.
Some moments are great - the heavily re-imagined balcony scene (they spend almost the whole time wrapped around each other, which is non-standard to say the least), or the death, which Luhrmann pushes into the tragedy red zone by having Juliet wake up before Romeo is dead are both fantastic - and some are desperately bad - the Queen Mab speech goes wrong in every way I could imagine. Overall, though, it's pretty clear that the film isn't trying to explicate any of this stuff, but use it to throw us headlong into an emotional state. Luhrmann plainly means for Romeo + Juliet to be experiential first, then dramatic; that's why we get the chaotic editing courtesy of Jill Bilcock, fragmenting the action into bite-sized pieces that are thus each emphasised as The Most Important Thing Ever. Notice the gun! Notice the thunder! Notice the neon crucifixes! the film demands, and certainly with Luhrmann's wife and most important collaborator Catherine Martin doing her usually brazen work as production designer (there are enough weird little Shakespeare in-jokes that I gave up tracking them, and the evocation of the expensive tackiness of South Florida is priceless), the things we are made to notice are eye-catching, one and all.
But the storytelling is messy, no doubt about it. Not like Moulin Rouge!, where the storytelling was simplistic but clear; this film does suffer from style that gets in the way of the plot, rather than a plot that just doesn't want to compete. The opening, for example: there's a flawless conceit of using a news broadcast of the opening lines of the play (and Shakespeare's dialogue coming from the voice of a Standard American English broadcaster lady is the most delightfully off-kilter bit of line-reading in the whole movie, I think), but then there's a crazy, text-dominated montage immediately after that exactly repeats the lines. I have no idea what the point was, but it makes the movie feel weird and aimless basically the moment it starts, and to an extent, it never recovers. The movie is dazzling, and its experiment in contrasting modern culture with archaic language is fascinating enough to make that language pop, but it's simply too busy and wearying to really feel like a fully effective version of Romeo + Juliet. I love the energy, no matter what use it's being put to - I'd watch this movie a hundred times before the stillborn 1936 Leslie Howard/Norma Shearer version - and the teen-pop iconography of DiCaprio and Danes works greatly to the film's benefit even when their performances fall short. Overall, though it's simply not focused or consistent enough to fully earn its tragedy.
Updated: All those words, and I completely forgot to mention something I really wanted to point out! Despite being the only one of Luhrmann's first four movies that wasn't an Australian co-production, it strikes me that Romeo + Juliet showcases much more than the director's later films a quintessentially Aussie sense of wacky humor: the Montague gang in general feels like they came from one of those "colorful people doing colorful things" films that were for a long time the sole cinematic export of that country (including Luhrmann's own Strictly Ballroom), and especially Mercutio, bizarrely and unsuccessfully re-imagined as a woman-hating heterosexual drag queen.