The name Baz Luhrmann has been circulating a lot recently as the producer of a singularly hateful little hit record called “Everyone’s Free To Wear Sunscreen,” a speech to a graduating class mistakenly attributed at one time to Kurt Vonnegut. And while his updating of Shakespeare’s most famous tragedy is nowhere near as dreadful, neither is it the contemporary R&J for the pop culture `90s that it could have been, ultimately capitulating to conventional thinking and landing somewhere in between a good try and a glittering wreck.
It seems every generation tries to fit Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers into its peculiar generational context – West Side Story put it in the context of `50s causeless rebellion, and Franco Zefferelli’s 1968 version tried to appropriate its audience’s flower power. Now, Luhrmann has taken all the elements of the cut-and-paste `90s for his version. Beginning like a Sergio Leone western, complete with faux Ennio Morricone fuzz-tone guitar music, we get a whip-fast violent confrontation between the Montagues and Capulets at a gas station in the mythical city of Verona Beach. It’s a breathless, flashy set piece, cut for the MTV-tempered, and possessing an undeniable, kinetic momentum. This momentum is maintained in the film’s most memorable set piece, an outdoor costume party worthy of Ken Russell where Romeo (Leonardo DiCaprio) – on a tab of blotter acid supplied by a drag-queen Mercutio – meets his lady love, Juliet, played by the lovely Claire Danes. There are clever contemporary touches throughout the film; writing in his diary, cigarette planted in his lips, Leo recalls Jean-Paul Belmondo in Godard’s Pierrot le Fou; Juliet’s suitor Paris becomes yuppie Dave Paris; and Shakespeare’s choruses are cleverly delivered as newscasts. All of Luhrmann’s touches are amusing, but sadly that’s all they are. They never enhance the characters or inform the action, and apart from the flamboyant direction in the action scenes – it’s like an Oliver Stone film, full of faster-than-the eye-edits, changes in film speed and stock, etc. – the film eventually settles down into a pretty conventional rendering of the story. For all its guns and religious (read Catholic) symbols – even the oft-used .45 caliber automatics are emblazoned with sacred hearts – Luhrmann’s vision recycles a variety of modern film techniques without any passion for its characters. And in Shakespeare, that’s fatal. While the film pumps up the intensity of every emotion, by the time we get to the death of Mercutio (a horribly protracted and foolish scene), we are exhausted by the overwrought filmmaking.
DiCaprio and Danes both have their moments here (he seems at his best when he’s crying and cursing the heavens), even though it’s not too hard to imagine Danes capable of inserting a “whatever” into her dialogue. But they both seem sedate compared to some expected overacting by John Leguizamo as a slick Tybalt – looking like a punk, 1930’s Cesar Romero with silver-heeled boots – and by Harold Perrineau as a hyper Mercutio. As expected, the old folks have the best scenes: Paul Sorvino as Capulet, Brain Dennehy as “Ted” Montague (please), Pete Postlethwaite as Friar Laurence and Diane Venora (Venora in Verona?) as Juliet’s mother all have fine moments here. My favorite, however, was the wonderful M. Emett Walsh as the poison-dispensing Apothecary.
The film also falls prey to one of the worst aspects of `90s filmmaking – the rock soundtrack. I wouldn’t mind The Cardigans’ “Lovefool” in the film, but to have it flare up on the soundtrack only to fade it out seconds later seems a technique aimed at selling records rather than punctuating a scene. There are very, very few directors able to pull off a rock soundtrack – Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino come to mind – and Luhrmann isn’t one of them. Still, I admit it was nice to hear Radiohead’s “Exit Music for A Film” used exactly as it should be – when the end credits roll.
Worth a look on a slow evening, but for all its concessions to its youthful demographic, in the long run it’s about as hip and alternative as “Sunscreen.”