February 28, 2008

Underrated MOTM: Romeo + Juliet (1996)

The Underrated Movie of the Month (MOTM) for February, Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet, has been largely overshadowed by the Australian director's other two films, 1992's Strictly Ballroom and 2001's Moulin Rouge!. His next project, this year's early Oscar favorite Australia, will thus mark only his fourth film in the last 16 years.
Romeo + Juliet was, obviously, an adaptation of Shakespeare's play by the same name, but Luhrmann's creative idea was to bring the tragedy out of the Globe Theatre and into the present day (the film was released in November of 1996). Cars, guns, and the seedy culture of Verona have never looked so spectacular, and the meticulous attention to detail and visual/pop culture referencing (media coverage, guns named "sword" and "dagger") was brilliant. Luhrmann created a bright, vibrantly colorful landscape thanks to his decision to film in Mexico and Miami, and the soundtrack was undoubtedly one of the best of the decade, featuring Radiohead, Garbage, Everclear, Quindon Tarver (an amazing cover of "When Doves Cry"), The Cardigans, Des'ree and more. It's incredible how well that collection has held up - listen to it again and feel like you're right back in the movie.

What's most impressive about Romeo + Juliet to me now is looking at who was on the short list for the cast, according to IMDB: Ewan McGregor, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Jennifer Love Hewitt, Reese Witherspoon, Kate Winslet, Christina Ricci, Natalie Portman, and Christian Bale. Of course, none of them ended up in the film, but the actual ensemble cast was nothing to scoff at: Harold Perrineau (though I've never seen "Lost"), Dash Mihok, Jesse Bradford (great in Flags of Our Fathers), Pete Postlethwaite (Kobayashi from The Usual Suspects), Paul Sorvino, Brian Dennehy, John Leguizamo, and even Paul Rudd. Among those I've listed in this paragraph are some really great actors, and remember this was 12 years ago! Baz Luhrmann is either really lucky or has an amazing casting agent. Don't think I've forgotten future Hollywood legend Leonardo DiCaprio (who broke through two years later with Titanic) or talented underachiever Claire Danes. They were a great pair at the perfect point in their careers. I shudder to think at who would be cast if this film was made in 2008 - Paul Walker and Jessica Alba?

The biggest digs at Romeo + Juliet involved its visual style and contemporary setting contrasted with Luhrmann's decision to keep the dialogue in its 16th-century form (DiCaprio as Romeo: "He that hath the steerage of my course, direct my sail!"). Roger Ebert gave it one of the worst reviews I've seen him give of any movie, the NYT's Janet Maslin was a little more forgiving but still called it a "frenetic hodgepodge," and The San Francisco Chronicle's Mick LaSalle called this "true tragedy" a "monumental disaster."

Wow. Well it should go without saying that your initial reaction to the film almost entirely depends on how sacred you regard Shakespeare's work. Speaking for myself: eh. The stories are rich with symbolism and I'm sure are very useful in college literature classes, but I'm not one to gush about dialogue like, "
If I profane with my unworthiest hand this holy shrine, the gentle sin is this. My lips, to blushing pilgrims, ready stand to smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss." I'm sorry, it just doesn't do much for me, and I accept that that makes me culturally degenerate. I enjoy the novelty of an old language ("Do you bite your thumb at us, sir?"; "A curse on both your houses!"), but it takes something like Romeo + Juliet to bring it life for me.

I also have to mention here the reaction to 2005's highly acclaimed Brick, which (awkwardly, in my opinion) featured dialogue in film noir style: "Your muscle seemed plenty cool putting his fist in my head. I want him out." In his glowing review of Brick, Ebert observed that these "contemporary characters...inhabit personal styles from an earlier time," before describing director Rian Johnson as "very good." What gives?

I'm going to go ahead and speculate that if Ebert and LaSalle sat down and watched Romeo + Juliet again, they would have a different reaction (probably similar to Slant's take in 2002). With Moulin Rouge!, Luhrmann clearly showed again that his motive is not protecting the sanctity of language but rather imagining new ways to mix art, pop culture, music, and love. At least Maslin recognized this "visual universe fully in tune with the characters' ageless passions." Luhrmann's
style is wholly unique, similar to Julie Taymor, and he's not given enough credit for exploring new dimensions in film. Romeo + Juliet was, in my opinion, a successful experiment and fascinating stimulus for the senses. And yes, I think it did make a 400 year-old story more relevant.


  1. Good choice.

    I enjoyed this movie as well. It did get a respectable score of 60 from the professional critics at metacritic.com and 7.0 from the users. Rolling Stone gave it a perfect 100 saying: "Amid the clamor from outraged purists and Shakespeare spinning in his Stratford-on-Avon, England, grave, you should notice that Luhrmann and his two bright angels have shaken up a 400-year-old play without losing its touching, poetic innocence."

  2. And you have nothing to add about the soundtrack!? ;-)

  3. I agree! I love this movie, even 12 years later. I saw it when I was 15, with raging hormones and Leo was the hottest thing since sliced bread. I just watched it again a few months ago, and still think it's brilliant, so to me it will stand the test of time. It did get severely knocked around by the critics, and I'm not sure why they all hated it so much.

    Since you mention Taymor, is it safe to assume you've seen her version of Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus? If not, I think you would really enjoy it. Also, Richard III with Ian McKellan, which updates the story to 1940s and turns Richard into a Hitler-esque figure. Both brilliant!

    Oh, and btw, I'm a huge Shakespeare fan.

  4. Thanks, Mrs. Thuro. Was sliced bread that hot before Leo? ;-P. I'm sure you enjoyed Titanic as a 17 year-old as well.

    I haven't seen Romeo for probably 10 years, but writing about it sure made me wonder why. Everybody loves Luhrmann now, so I don't know what the problem was with it at the time.

    It is not safe to assume I've seen anything Taymor has done besides Frida and Universe - not even The Lion King. As I mentioned here, though, that's the kind of adaptation that gets me excited about Shakespeare. Come to think of it, I wonder why more haven't been done?

  5. Most impressive, Daniel.

    R + J is one of my absolute favorites; it was the first movie I ever saw more than once while it was in the theater. You didn't mention Luhrmann's cool foreshadowing technique... quick flashes of future climactic scenes, early in the movie. He did that in Moulin Rouge! too.

    And, yes, the soundtrack is breathtaking.

  6. Sounds like I need to see it again, Nayana, as I don't remember those foreshadowing flashes. I do remember a lot of quick cutting and extreme close ups. Lots of shots of people's faces as they're screaming. Yes, definitely time to see it again.

  7. Shakespeare is made to be reworked and updated, it's one of the brilliant things about it.

    R+J is vibrant and interesting and worthy of its source material.

    The combination of the original dialogue with the modern setting works great if you ask me.

  8. Terrific site, Daniel. I appreciate the layout of your reviews, listing the pluses and negatives of each movie sort of like users on epinions do. The letter grades also let me know immediately where you stand.

    I would love to see more Underrated Movies reviewed in the future, particularly ones like Romeo + Juliet that were attacked by critics. I get the impression that audiences overseas (meaning Europe and Asia) and teenagers were much more open to the visual eccentricies of this movie than critics were.

    Great work. Keep it up.

  9. Thanks for stopping by, Joe, and for the kind words. I can't say my reviews are very good, but at least they're unique...?

    Craig, I'm glad you agree - hopefully some creative soul will continue to breathe new life into the Bard's work.


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