Monday, July 27, 2015

Romeo + Juliet (1996)

This week, to celebrate a review that's been years in the making, my friend Tony and I did a podcast talking about our history with this movie and what we thought about it. Check it out:

William Shakespeare is always a tough one to tackle when making a movie, because there are so many things that can go wrong. You really just need the best actors and the best understanding of drama possible, because otherwise you could end up churning out something rather misguided or silly.

And when you don't feel like even trying, you can always just make something like Romeo + Juliet.

Director: Baz Luhrmann
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Claire Danes

Co-written with Tony and Michelle.

Yes, this is the 1996 Baz Luhrmann film that some people like and other people wonder why those people won't share their illegal drugs. Seriously, guys, it's bad. I respect any opinions to the contrary, and I know it won a lot of awards, but there's no mincing words or dancing around the point here. This is a bad movie.

We start off with a TV news report talking about the Capulets and the Montagues in their ongoing strife in a big city. I guess the idea is kind of clever, but it's just done in such a goofy, cartoonish way. Hearing Shakespearean dialogue coming out of a bunch of news anchors in suits on a TV screen just doesn't fit. It's like wearing sandals with socks.

And the directing is just so god-awful. Everything is done in sped-up cartoony pace, with lots of exaggerated movements and over the top flamboyance. It's annoying as shit. Everything happens super fast and there's just no room for the film to breathe. Like, really, even before the characters actually come in – you get tons of quick shots of the city, and things burning, aerial shots that are supposed to represent the chaos between the two families.

Maybe they'll report on that King Lear fellow next town over, too, and his familial drama.

You'd think the National Guard would step in, seeing as this IS supposed to be modern times and in the United States, and these families are seemingly wreaking havoc on a whole entire big city. But I guess that wasn't important – fuck actually doing work with the stupid ideas and themes you came up with, right? "It's an artistic decision" isn't a catch-all for bullshit, guys.

And, apparently, this is now a Full House style sitcom. Because the movie can't make up its mind on fucking anything.

The very first actual scene is perpetual bad movie machine John Leguizamo as Tybalt and a bunch of other idiots as the Montagues, fighting at a gas station. I bet Shakespeare envisioned his classic work this way when writing it – idiots with Hawaiian shirts and dyed pink hair and cowboy boots fighting with guns and blowing up cars in the middle of a crowded traffic hour. THAT'S the Shakespeare I know and love!

This isn't a fucking ballet class. In real life you'd have been shot by now.

I think I finally know the real problem with these sorts of scenes. In the original story, yeah, it was two packs of young, testosterone-filled morons fighting in the streets. Fine. But you're updating this to the modern day. It really doesn't make sense to have them fighting and shooting guns at each other in the middle of a crowded city. In any modern society, they would be stopped and arrested for this. Why not just have them meet on a sidewalk somewhere in some shitty neighborhood and fight there? There's just no need for this much theatrics.

You're making Skittles look like they're all black and grey. Jesus Christ.

The more and more I watch, the more I'm convinced Luhrmann put all this over the top wackiness in there because he thought the audience would be bored by the dialogue, and so he wanted to make it so grotesquely goofy that the Looney Tunes' conflicts look like Casablanca in comparison.

Leguizamo's acting in this is so bad you can see it from outer space. The aliens are laughing at us, and this performance is why they haven't made contact yet. Every scene he's in, he's screaming, doing weird motions with his eyebrows, baring his teeth like a rabid dog, and dancing around everywhere. His wardrobe seems to be a collection of clown clothes picked out by a blind person.

The only love of Leguizamo's life...

So then we get Romeo, played by Leonardo DiCaprio. Give him credit, he tries – but him exchanging Shakespeare's beautifully written dialogue about longing for young love while hanging with a bunch of dude-bros with surfer haircuts and Hawaiian shirts in a pool hall is fucking eye-gouging, ear-raping terrible.

Meanwhile, Juliet, played by Claire Danes, is in her house while they're getting ready for a party. She's probably one of the better actresses in this, but her mother played by Diane Venora is probably the worst performance in the movie (well, next to Leguizamo). It probably wasn't even her fault – I blame whoever directed her to emote every line like a woman who was just in a car crash and is screaming for the medics to help her.

Is this shot pandering to the dentists in the audience? Eugh.

Every fucking line, she's screaming her head off. Was it supposed to be funny? Because it's not, unless you just think really loud things blaring in your face are funny. In that case, I have another recommendation for you which I am sure you will also find hysterical:

So they go to a party, where Mercutio (Harold Perrineau) is dressed in drag as a disco ball, apparently, and goes into a whole song and dance about...well, I don't really know, as frankly I'm too distracted by the annoying, garish visuals to pay attention to what they're saying.

This is a carefully crafted assault on our collective minds...

I get it, they're trying to go for spectacle here, fast and entertaining and colorful – but this is way, waaaay over the top. Shakespearean theater is no stranger to silly comedy, but what you did here was like someone bringing a mechanic a car and telling him to polish up the exterior and change the tires, and he instead adds big wheels with flashing strobe lights, paints flames on the sides and puts a rocket launcher to the top.

Also, why is there a guy in an astronaut costume at this party? I guess it's a costume party, so anything goes, but seriously, doesn't that just seem slightly out of place? Or maybe that one was just between the lines in the original play.

Juliet always dreamed of being with a man who wears adult diapers.

Romeo meets Juliet, and they go through the whole routine, falling in love faster than a celebrity can backpedal after the media catches them saying racist things. It's a decent scene, as whenever the camera is just on these two, the movie is at least kind of tolerable. And by that I mean it isn't a hyperactive blast of rainbow-colored annoyance, so that's good at least.

Ew, cooties. Gross.

But alas, they find out they're from warring families, so they can't be together. In the original play this made sense, as it was hundreds of years ago and kids their age had little control over their lives. But in a big modern city like this movie is set in? Shit, man – these kids would be running away, smoking blunts in a hotel room and probably be pregnant in as much time as the movie takes place, if this were real life.

The movie kind of blathers on for a while, and we get a scene where the two of them horsing around in a pool. I love the scene where there's actually a security guard for the Capulets' mansion dressed up in regular clothes and watching a security cam, and he comes out and checks on Juliet after hearing them fall into the pool.

"I should probably retire, but being a security guard is fun because I don't have to do any work!"
The point where she learns she can get away with anything with just a smile...

He sees her for a split second and she gives him a thumbs up, so I guess that's OK – I mean, maybe she's just the type of person who falls into pools all the time. No point in checking to make sure she isn't being held hostage at gunpoint and being forced to pretend she's OK, right?

Romeo then goes to a priest and asks him how he can marry Juliet. The priest doesn't think to tell him it's a stupid idea – he just escalates the situation, presumably because he is a sick man who likes to play with peoples' lives.

"Father, shouldn't we talk him out of this crazy idea and be rational?"
"Ssshhhh... I want to see where this trainwreck goes."

But luckily, before that can come to fruition, Mercutio is brutally murdered by Tybalt. Oh, did I say luckily? I, uh, misspoke. I meant it's very tragic. Ahem. Yes. He was an annoying man who didn't deserve to know what, I'm no good at eulogies. I just can't put my whole self into it.

Romeo then chases down Tybalt in the rain and kills him, too – it's another awful, wretched scene full of bad directing, with lots of super fast cuts that make you more nauseous than that rickety old carnival ride that made you puke on your date last year after you ate a chili dog. Incidentally, this movie is also the number one cause of people puking on their dates when watching it.


Because of this, the judge of the court banishes Romeo from the city, which is something a lot of judges do. I remember when Casey Anthony was on trial and then they banished her from Florida afterward. That was an intense day.

Juliet's family then forces her to get married to some doofus who didn't have any important lines in the movie. Still hopeful that Leonardo DiCaprio will win an Oscar back in 1996, she rebels and runs away from her family. There's also an awful, repugnant scene of her father (Paul Sorvino) screaming at her for disobeying him. Wow, an angry father taking out his insecurities on a daughter who won't obey him? Please, movie, dazzle us with more of your brilliantly original scenes!

Juliet then goes to that priest from before, and threatens to commit suicide if she has to marry that other guy. She also points a gun at the priest, which was the best scene in the movie for me.

DO IT!!!

The priest sits down with her and talks her through it, calming her down and helping her realize suicide isn't the answer.

Nah! Just kidding. He gives her a potion to fake her death until Romeo can come back and save her. He really had this whole fake death thing planned well, huh? He didn't even skip a beat – just brought it up like it was the most normal thing in the world.

He tells her his plan with the aid of images horribly green-screened behind him, which makes this whole sequence look like a bad anti-drug video they would make you watch in fourth grade.
"Here, take my faking-death potion that I mysteriously, worryingly have for suspicious reasons!"
"But Father, wasn't that your real bottle of shark poison?!"
"Oh, well... shit."

Meanwhile, Romeo is hanging out somewhere in the desert doing nothing. Really, Juliet – are you sure this is the guy you want to marry? He doesn't seem particularly motivated. Oh, except when he learns that Juliet killed herself. Then he does an excellent overly dramatic scream at the heavens with his fist pumped. Yeah! There's the old Romeo spirit. Bravado underlined by utter pointlessness.

Also it seems like he's been exiled to North Dakota. Which makes sense - if you're going to exile people from a city, might as well send them to places with wide open space, a lot of room and no reason to want to continue living.

He had to wander around in the field and find the best spot to drop to his knees and dramatically scream at the sky. It's a talent of his, and he's becoming an expert.

It's really just too bad he couldn't put as much effort into checking whether she was really dead, as he did in that dramatic scream. Because when he finds her fake-dead body, he kills himself for real. And right before he dies, she opens her eyes and reveals that she wasn't dead!

So then she shoots herself in the head and dies along with him. I really have to admire the neat and clean way she shot herself in the head, with no blood and her head fully intact!

Guys, I know middle school theater productions of this play don't have blood, but the least you could have done after making us sit through the movie, was show us the characters' mangled and bloody corpses. Thanks for fucking nothing.

I hated this movie for years growing up, and in fact for years in high school I proclaimed this to be the worst movie ever made. Watching it again now, I don't find myself mad, but rather just very, very fascinated with all of this. It's loud, it's stupidly colorful, it's goofy, the acting was bad, the costumes were bad and I'm pretty sure it would smell bad if you could smell it. It's an assault on every sense you have, and it's amazingly, relentlessly annoying almost every minute of screentime. Tony said later that the movie deserves the same treatment as the ET game cartridges, with every copy buried in a landfill, and I'm inclined to say he's right.

The way they tried to modernize the story was half-assed and not clever at all. The story's silliest moments seem extra dumb now when you couple them with the goofy acting and the awful directing. The entire thing is just a cacophonous mess and it's actually kind of amazing how weirdly awful everything is. It's seriously a marvel how little of anything was done well here.

But really I just had to come back to one thing – in the original play, you got a sense of the young, fleeting, passionate love the characters had. You got into the drama. It was a story about two kids who fall in the kind of stupid, blind, insane and passionate love that kids fall into, and reading it or watching a faithful adaptation makes it clear how little teenagers and the young love they share have changed in the hundreds of years since Shakespeare's time. It's a timeless story and can resonate with anyone who was ever a teenager and had a boyfriend or girlfriend. That's what made it so fucking brilliant.

This movie doesn't have that timeless feel. It's tired and extremely dated now, and it just can't make you connect with any of the drama in it. Between the folds of fat of the ridiculous garish colors and over the top acting, it loses the humanity and drama of the story. I guess I can see why people like this, for the over the top artsiness, but it really fell flat for us here, and failed at everything it tried to do.

Luhrmann said in interviews that he wanted this to reflect the kind of bawdy, theatrical goofiness that would have kept crowds watching in Shakespeare's own time, when he was alive. But really, we don't need that now, because audiences are intelligent and can understand more things without gimmicky flashiness and over the top cues every second. I mean, it's just hard to take any of this seriously when the hero dies wearing a shirt that looks like it's from Spencer's.

Images copyright of their original owners, we own none of them.