Courtesy Photo
Adapted & directed by Baz Luhrmann

Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Claire Danes, John Leguizamo, Pete Postlethwaite, Miriam Margolyes, Paul Sorvino, Brian Dennehy, Paul Rudd & M. Emmet Walsh.

"Romeo & Juliet"

Opened: November 1, 1996 | Rated: PG-13

Plagued by phonetic delivery of dialogue, some poor casting and silly, cutting edge editing, Baz Luhrmann's post-modern "Romeo and Juliet" is a comic book shot at selling Shakespeare to Generation X.

Set among two crime families in modern day Florida, this highly stylized sophomore effort from the director of "Strictly Ballroom" shamelessly steals technique from "Trainspotting," fist-pounding mobster bosses from Scorsese flicks and even a production number from "The Rocky Horror Picture Show."

But even with all its problems, the film has at its core an electrifying chemistry between Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes as our star-crossed lovers. When they are together on the screen everything works. Both talented young stars, their scenes together are inspired.

When they meet at a costume party -- staring transfixed at each other through a fish tank that separates two rooms of the Capulet mansion -- the rapid-fire MTV editing and grinding soundtrack disappear. The stars take the audience into another world.

But when the film is away from the lovers the focus is lost in big budget showmanship. 20th Century Fox threw money at Luhrmann for this film and he spent it on custom cars instead of acting coaches. The only two supporting players who can wrap their mouths around Shakespeare's weighty dialogue are the two classically trained -- Pete Postlethwaite ("The Usual Suspects") as "Father" Lawrence and Miriam Margoyles ("James and the Giant Peach") as Juliet's nurse.

In fact, in the scenes without Danes (who is engaging throughout), DiCaprio also looks lost in his lines and tries to hide it with grand gestures and a lot of Stanley Kowalski-style hollering.

But in spite of filmmaking so sloppy that Tybalt (John Leguizamo) is clean shaven in one scene and mustached in the next, and knee-jerked editing that leaves Father Lawrence's epilogue on the cutting room floor in favor of an insultingly cheap flashback sequence, this "Romeo and Juliet" is worth a look.

I have always been a proponent of fiddling with Shakespeare, and Luhrmann adds some wonderfully fresh twists to bring The Bard into the '90s.

The balcony scene is shot in a pool at the Capulet's gothic home. Father Lawrence's ill-fated letters to the exiled Romeo are delivered by Federal Express. After Juliet's apparent suicide, Romeo's stand off with Paris, her intended, at the entrance to her tomb becomes a shoot-out with police instead, with Romeo bellowing "Tempt not a desperate man!" at helicopters overhead. Luhrmann even adds a gut-wrenching, albeit melodramatic, twist to Romeo's death.

It is a clever piece of work, but Shakespeare's intensity simply got away from the director. However, even defective Shakespeare is better than most other options at the multiplex -- and come on, you know you're curious.

While I can't pretend it's a good movie, the remarkable magnetism between DiCaprio and Danes is by itself worth the ticket price. But do yourself a favor and make it a matinee.

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