Here’s something that may shock my readers. While I’m a self-admitted fanatic of William Shakespeare, I am not especially fond of Romeo and Juliet. There’s no denying that the play contains some of his most memorable lines and that the and the violent spiral of events leading up to its ending are suitably tragic, but I’ve never been able to buy into the love story at the center of the play. Romeo is a love-sick puppy dog pining over a woman named Rosaline at the beginning of the play to the point where he’s become depressed over not having her (I won’t even get into Juliet’s complete lack of a personality) but after seeing Juliet, a member of his family’s sworn enemies, he falls heads over heels in love with her (as does she to him), and they are married within a day. Within a week of being together, they are so madly in love with one another that Romeo commits suicide when he believes Juliet is dead and Juliet does the same when she finds her Romeo when she awakens from her self-inflicted coma. It’s hogwash and completely unrealistic to the point of being patently absurd. Shakespeare’s prose was as brilliant as ever, but I’ve never been able to emotionally invest myself in this story the same way I could with Hamlet, Macbeth, or (my favorite) King Lear.

Well, leave it to Baz Luhrmann to take an already problematic play and turn it into an over-stylized and cartoonish mess. Anyone who has seen Moulin Rouge knows that Luhrmann isn’t exactly the most subtle director out there (and don’t get me started on the sin of including “Smells Like Teen Spirit” in that film), but Luhrmann’s modernized adaptation of Romeo and Juliet left subtlety behind in pre-production and went for almost unwatchable camp instead. Luhrmann’s versin of the play takes place in (then) modern America in Verona Beach, California (an obvious play on Venice Beach) while still maintaining Shakespeare’s original dialogue, therefore guns are still called swords and everyone is talking like they just stepped out of the renaissance fair. Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes take the roles of the two star-crossed lovers with back-up support from Lost‘s Harold Perrinau as the flamboyant Mercutio, Super Mario Bros‘ John Leguizamo as the villainous Tybalt, Role Models‘ Paul Rudd as Juliet’s betrothed Paris, and many others.

This film is hit and miss, but when it misses, it’s a trainwreck. Luhrmann actually does several things right. Leo and Claire Danes were cast perfectly for these roles, and while Leo wasn’t quite at the prime of his acting ability yet, even at that age, he was still very talented and you could catch glimpses of why he would eventually replace Robert DeNiro as Martin Scorscese’s muse. Claire Danes has been criminally underrated her entire career (where is the love for My So Called Life), and she’s only just now started getting credit for her talent with her award-winning role on Homeland. Despite the fact that Juliet is an absurdly shallow character, Claire Danes makes it work. Harold Perrinau was the real scene-stealer as Mercutio, and he brought a vibrancy and intensity that managed to seem natural for easily the play’s best character and not make it seem absurdly campish like everything else in the film. I’ll refrain from eviscerating the performance of John Leguizamo who was seriously miscast as was Jamie Kennedy in a smaller role. Luhrmann has a Fellini-esque ability to capture faces and use them for optimum aesthetic effect and there are many moments in the film where he is simply able to transform the already gorgeous faces of DiCaprio and Danes into something extraordinarily beautiful.

This film’s opening scene, which is lifted straight from Scene I of Act I of the play (except for the obvious setting switch), is one of the most horrendous things I’ve ever seen in the history of this blog, and that includes Christine and The Girl with the Pistol. Everyone in the scene (but John Leguizamo) are hamming up the material to almost satirical levels, and Luhrmann uses such frenetic and unnecessary cuts and edits that it almost gives you motion sickness. If this were intended to be comedy, it would be one thing (though I doubt I would enjoy it), but instead, it’s meant to be played straight and it’s so terrible that it goes past the point of being hilariously bad. It simply becomes horrendously aggravating. That’s the film’s problem though. You have moments here and there where the cinematography is actually brilliant and Luhrmann just lets the story speak for itself, but then he feels the need to inject this hyper-stylistic element to the film and 9 times out of 10 it simply doesn’t pay off. There’s more mood whiplash in this film than a Joss Whedon production but without any of the charm that makes Whedon so lovable.

I am open to radical re-interpretations of Shakespeare’s work (Akira Kurosawa’s samurai re-imagining of King Lear with Ran remains one of the best films I’ve reviewed for this blog), but Luhrmann’s inconsistent film is an almost unmitigated failure only saved by flashes of brilliance that rarely shine through. If you’re a fan of Shakespeare, don’t watch this. If you’re a fan of Leo or Claire Danes, this should only be seen just so you can know how far they’ve come in their careers. There isn’t a subset of my reading audience that I would subject this film to, and if the score I’m giving it seems too high for a movie I hate so much, it’s because of those flashes of brilliance you see which really are that good. It’s a shame they are suffocated on all sides by almost complete incompetence.

Final Score: C-