TBT: Romeo + Juliet (1996)

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It’s a little difficult to outfit TBT with a ‘romantic’ theme without turning the spotlight on *the* romance movie. . . or at least without recognizing one of cinema’s most popular, ill-fated couples. I’m sure if I were to ever nominate the Baz Luhrmann adaptation as the romance film to end all romance films I could expect to see that comment box at the bottom fill up with many an impassioned, even hateful, hurtful comment. I probably wouldn’t blame them either. It’s kind of a mystery as to why I’m going with this one but sometimes spontaneity is just what this blog needs. While this modern approach is hardly a patch on old Will’s play I think there are one or two interesting elements worth talking about with

Today’s food for thought: Romeo + Juliet.

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Seriously, these two have been kissing since: November 1, 1996

[VHS?]

Since the dawn of time, man has always . . . .

No. There’s absolutely no way I’m going that route. But at a certain point doesn’t the mere mentioning of the names Romeo and Juliet in any kind of discussion feel like a cliché in itself? There’s really no point in going through this post by ticking off the usual boxes: the quality of the overall experience, the effectiveness of its major elements (cast, setting, score, editing, etc.), any of its lingering effects . . . yadda-yadda.

I’m much more keen to talk about what I think the big man (no, not God — Shakespeare . . . which, for some, I guess the two could be interchangeable) would think of what Mr. Flamboyant has done with his timeless examination of two of the strongest human emotions, love and hatred. Would the world’s greatest writer take offense in knowing how many times his ideas have been revisited? Revised? Butchered (or just a little battered and bruised)? Would he spin in his urn knowing one particular film starred a version of Leonardo DiCaprio prior to him becoming one of the great thespians of the 21st Century? What about the concept of integrating ye olde dialogue — the stuff we largely accept now as archaic and impractical — into a modern context, would William approve or would he face-palm from beyond the grave?

Ignoring some factors only we modern audiences are likely to criticize — why couldn’t Leo be as good then as he is now? — there are a few tweaks that the great playwright maybe wouldn’t “get.” Take for instance the hallucinogenic Romeo takes at a party which sets him on a collision course with a most tragic fate. “Ecstasy? What, pray, is this ecstasy of which you speak? Doth thou hold no interest in retaining logic, for very little of it is produced in thinking one can swallow thine own happiness in a physical manner. Return this ‘ecstasy’ from whence it came; scrub this fantasy from the deepest recesses of thou perversed mind! Me be damned to mine own coffin, I do believe the kids got fucked up on wine.”

Oh, but Good Sir I must retort: the spirit of Romeo and Juliet still lives! Just because wine has little place in Verona Beach, that does not mean this city has no place for love. In fact the heart beats ever stronger for a couple as mesmeric (and pretty) as DiCaprio and Danes. The Capulets and Montagues are still fiercely at war with one another, through staunch ideological differences of the seedy mob-world variety. Ted/Caroline and Fulgencio/Gloria, in this day and age now tied in with the mafia who have ‘legitimate’ business competition, still hate each other. And their hatred is almost proportional to the intense feelings their offspring hold for something that is apparently forbidden: seeing past a rivalry and accepting the individual for who they are. Good Sir, that has been a sentiment echoed throughout the ages, and it does more than just enhance this modern adaptation of arguably your greatest work. Blind devotion comes to define the picture, as it ought to.

This, despite other, more notable deviations. You should rest easy knowing that even if Luhrmann wanted to swap out a couple of Capulets for some Montagues (and vice versa) the essence of this complicated family dynamic isn’t distorted or diminished. I don’t claim to understand why he wanted to make some name changes, but if anything it helps to distinguish this one particular entry from the legions of other versions. There are no friars here, nor swords. We have public officials and more advanced weaponry to not only elevate but contextualize this timeless drama.

Romeo + Juliet certainly is more lavish in its design, more heavy-hitting in its violence and yet more relatable in terms of Lords and Ladies being unable to sweep the dirt of the past aside in order to allow for even a single flower to grow. It’s a testament to the strength of your writing, Good Sir, that even a bizarre and controversial decision to modernize a film while retaining the original dialogue and basic story structure can still make us feel that our own hearts have been poisoned too.

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3-5Recommendation: Not everyone may see this is as a worthy adaptation, but I certainly do. It’s also one of the only things Baz Luhrmann has produced that I’ve really felt suits his particularly colorful style. Romeo + Juliet doesn’t particularly add anything significant to the ever-increasing canon inspired by the play, but its devotion to the spirit of the classic, combined with a fresh environment is enough to set it apart from other, much duller attempts. If you haven’t seen this yet I suggest taking a look. If nothing else it’s funny to see a few familiar faces in this before they really blew up (looking at you in particular Leo, and also Paul Rudd, who plays Juliet’s would-be suitor, Dave Paris).

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 120 mins.

TBTrivia: Apparently Natalie Portman was originally cast for Juliet Capulet, but after watching some of the footage, it was deemed that the age difference between Leo and her was great enough to make the romance not only unbelievable, but it gave the appearance as though Romeo was quote, molesting her in several scenes. So they recast it for Claire Danes. There. Much less molesting.

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.cinematerial.com; http://www.film-grab.com  

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14 thoughts on “TBT: Romeo + Juliet (1996)

  1. Confession time: I have barely seen any of this movie. Like, I’m talking about just seeing clips of it. I just…don’t love Romeo and Juliet. Love Shakespeare (Hamlet is one of my favorite stories ever), but teen angst/love/suicide just…isn’t my thing. Also, I can no longer take Juliet seriously thanks to this:

    Anyway, nice work, Tom! I think I was kind of just looking for an excuse to post that video…hahaha.

  2. Excited to have found your blog. I also talk movies, mainly animation on mine. I haven’t seen this in years but loved it in high school. Will have to try again

  3. Pingback: TBT: Titanic (1997) | digitalshortbread

  4. Great review, man. Loved your little Shakespearean rant. As a big fan of the bard, I honestly thought I was going to hate Baz’s vision but… It worked! And very well at that. This is a fabulous adaptation and I would really like to see Luhrmann attempt another. Othello perhaps? That’s definitely ripe for an update!

    • Othello’s a great idea. Seriously! When was the last time that thing had a facelift?

      (Of course, if I were Luhrmann and screwed up another classic with his fancy-pants bullshit I might have to kill myself.)

  5. Didn’t this win an Best Screenplay Oscar? 🙂

    But seriously, not seen this since it came out but your fine appraisal is how I remember it. It helps that I love Claire Danes ( it’s a big reason why I watch Homeland).

  6. Hi Tom! It’s been ages since I saw this but I remember liking it. Nice chemistry between Leo & Claire, and that first meeting scene is enchanting and beautifully-shot. I think this is a far more successful classic re-imagining from Baz than The Great Gatsby.

    • I remember this being a really unique little movie. Which, when there are as many adaptations and revitalizations of the great play as there are out there now, is kind of saying something. I trust not everyone sees it this way, but I liked this one a lot. It’s good to have you echo that thought too. I was beginning to think little old me was in my own boat on this one! 😉

  7. Niiiiice! This is a TBT that I haven’t seen. To be perfectly honest it’s a movie that I initially dismissed. I definitely realize that was unfair of me. Your score does have me interested though. It may be one I try to track down. I mean we are talking Leo, right?

    • I think it’s worth a look-see man, I remember liking it quite a bit. It’s been years since I’ve seen it. I owe it to myself to go back and see how accurate this review really is. I might have just lied to everyone. . . . lol

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