(Welcome to The Daily Stream, an ongoing series in which the /Film team shares what they’ve been watching, why it’s worth checking out, and where you can stream it.)
The Movie: Romeo + Juliet
Where You Can Stream It: Paramount+
The Pitch: Remember the play you read in high school about the two families who hated each other, but their teenage kids ended up falling in love? Director Baz Luhrmann modernized that tragic tale, but with a twist: the dialogue remained the same as when the Bard wrote it. Rising superstars Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes portray the titular star-crossed lovers. The medieval Italian city of Verona becomes a post-modern metropolis called Verona Beach. The Montagues and Capulets are two rival gangs, even fighting in the streets over petty insults. When Romeo, a Montague, attends a masked ball thrown by the Capulets, he falls in love with the lovely Juliet. The problem? Not only are their families bitter enemies, but Juliet is betrothed to Paris (Paul Rudd) as part of her father’s business strategy. The two go to extraordinary lengths to be together, with ultimately tragic results.
Why It’s Essential Viewing: Romeo + Juliet is a little bit of a mess, but that often works in its favor. Luhrmann loves to go as big as possible with his movies, and this one is no different. Everything is melodramatic to operatic levels, with characters shooting at one another from their convertibles as palm trees fly by. It’s big, it’s boisterous, and it somehow fits perfectly with the source material.
Luhrmann’s greatest strength is his ability to create beautiful fairy-tale visuals that sweep you off your feet. What better story to do that with than Romeo and Juliet, a story as romantic as it is tragic? Romeo + Juliet is steeped with stunning imagery, including fanciful costumes, brightly colored lights, and elegant mansions. From a purely visual standpoint, this flick is one of the best. The place where Romeo and Juliet first meet is a masked costume ball, giving Luhrmann a chance to really run with some more eclectic looks. Young DiCaprio is undeniably hot dressed as a medieval knight, while Danes’ angel costume shows her character’s sweet innocence. Their romance feels enchanted, even if we know it’s not going to end well. Having a 21-year-old DiCaprio and a 17-year-old Danes play the roles helps the characters feel like real teenagers, acting on their impetuous infatuations like teens are wont to do.
There’s a great supporting cast here, too, and everyone is giving it 110%. The great Paul Sorvino plays Juliet’s father, and we get to hear him sing some big operatic notes in his beautiful baritone. Character actor M. Emmet Walsh is perfect as the creepy apothecary. Rudd is great as the boorish Paris, who wants to wed Juliet for entirely selfish reasons. (Also, the man clearly does not age.) Perhaps the most noteworthy, however, are John Leguizamo as Romeo’s rival, Tybalt, and Harold Perrineau as Romeo’s mercurial friend Mercutio. Leguizamo is all fire and fury, coming after Romeo for revenge after Romeo sneaks into the ball and woos fair Juliet. Mercutio chooses to fight in his stead, and Tybalt wounds and eventually kills poor Mercutio. This sets the events in motion that lead to the film’s ultimately tragic ending, in which both Romeo and Juliet die by suicide.
Perrineau’s performance alone makes this movie worth checking out. He’s flamboyant and fey while also being incredibly powerful, a combination that’s tough to pull off. He has all of the sneer and sass of a top-tier drag queen while dressed in his disco glam costume for the ball. There is always a fool in Shakespeare’s plays, a character that is wise despite acting much more silly. In this play, that character is Mercutio, and Perrineau takes the foolishness to new heights. When he is fatally wounded, he shouts the famous line with gusto: “A plague on both your houses!” Once Mercutio is gone, the film sort of putters into its depressing denouement. Juliet fakes her death to try and escape the wedding to Paris, but Romeo doesn’t get the message that it’s a fake-out, so he kills himself. Teenagers, right?
I’ll confess: I love Shakespeare. I think his plays are classics for a reason, and that each has something meaningful to take away from it. Romeo and Juliet is one of his most famous plays, and one of his most melodramatic, but it absolutely works with Luhrmann’s over-the-top take. Swords become pistols with “sword” engraved on the side, the Prince of Verona becomes a police chief named Captain Prince, and there are colorful neon lights everywhere. It’s the pop art version of a tale more than 400 years old, bringing the Bard’s beautiful dialogue together with equally beautiful imagery.
Oh, and if you’re a Westworld fan, this is the best way to see where that whole “these violent delights have violent ends” bit came from. The 1968 Romeo and Juliet has it too, of course, but you’re not going to have nearly as much fun.
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