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A Close Reading of Baz Luhrmann’s ‘Romeo + Juliet’

Revisiting the classic on its 20th anniversary

Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Getty Images/Ringer illustration

I was 10 or 11 when I saw Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet for the first time. Despite a very advanced PG-13 rating, my mother took me and a friend to the theater to see it; she considered it educational. Shakespeare for pre-tweens. She regretted this choice after the first scene — a bullet-riddled, profanity-laced showdown between the Capulets and Montagues — and I sort of did too. “We can leave and go back to my house and play Barbies,” I suggested to my friend. She hissed back, “No! I want to stay. This movie is so good!”

And that is the opinion I accepted for the next 20 years. “Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet is so good.”

A brief refresher on the 1996 movie adaptation of Romeo and Juliet for those of you who were not in middle school at the time and thus likely do not cling to the film as a landmark Leonardo DiCaprio discovery vehicle: It is a lot. Luhrmann Michelle Pfeiffered the shit out of his Shakespeare, turning it into a messy, trippy pastiche of modern-day gang violence and rave culture. All of the colors were flamboyant. The pacing was frenetic. The dialogue was still in verse, because it was the ’90s, and that was the cool thing to do? It was big and audacious and batshit in a brave way.

Romeo + Juliet was also meant to be romanticized in pop culture, perfect for clipping and Tumblring and eventually memeing. The fish tank meet-cute will be forever enshrined on #relationship goal Pinterest pages; Claire Danes’s chin wobble remains one of the most beautiful things in the world. There will never be a better Leonardo DiCaprio. Romeo + Juliet is the perfect encapsulation of an era: peak ’90s, peak Leo, peak rave, peak soundtrack.

But that doesn’t make it a good movie. In fact, after revisiting the movie on the occasion of its 20th anniversary, I developed a sneaking suspicion that it might even be … bad? Overdone? Embarrassing at the very least. Romeo + Juliet is a prescient collection of social media moments, but is it watchable for anyone past the age of 10?

Our task today: to definitively answer that question. Join us as we present Are We Sure It’s Good? — Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet.

First, let us start with its positive attributes. Here is a list of definitively good things about this film, even in 2016:

Young Leonardo DiCaprio: Sometimes I imagine Leo looking back at the babyfaced, lovesick version of himself in Romeo + Juliet and using it as source material for his anguish. “How would Jay Gatsby feel looking across at Daisy’s green light? Oh, how I feel looking at my old face.” “What face should I make while eating this bison heart? Oh, the face I make while looking at my perfect teenage face.” Leo really was a perfect Romeo, with hair that flopped perfectly and eyes that could moon like none other in 1996. He was so handsome that you didn’t even mind that Radiohead played during his first moment on screen. Also, fun fact: Romeo + Juliet was the Leo Is Hot movie for trendsetters and early adopters. If you didn’t realize Leo Was Hot until Titanic (1997), you were late to the game, dweebs.

20th Century Fox
20th Century Fox

Young Claire Danes: Remember her on My So-Called Life? Danes spent 1994–95 as Angela Chase, which means she spent 1994–95 staring at Jordan Catalano with damp lashes and wide, emotive eyes that begged, “Love me, you floppy-haired fool, or I will literally die.” It was a season-long audition for Juliet, and it turned out to be perfect casting.

20th Century Fox
20th Century Fox

Claire Danes and Leonardo DiCaprio together: Watching the movie now, I wouldn’t say Claire and Leo had chemistry, exactly, but their pairing in the same frame had the same properties as a Renaissance painting — composed, proportionate, with little halos around them both. You would hang them in your locker in 1996, and you would briefly consider Instagramming them for a #TBT in 2016. That is true beauty.

The fish tank scene: Thank God this scene is safe; thank God this Des’ree song is safe. (Remember Des’ree? She hasn’t released any new material since 2003! Come back, Des’ree!) The fish tank is still one of the all-time love-at-first-sight scenes, and you should feel no shame about trying to re-create it each time you see a lobster tank in a seafood restaurant.

“Lovefool” by the Cardigans: The Romeo + Juliet soundtrack was a study in how to be cool in 1996. Butthole Surfers, Garbage, the Wannadies (a band so cool I have no idea who they are!). But it was mostly notable for the inclusion of “Lovefool” by the Cardigans, a Swedish band that toured radio station Jingle Balls for years on the strength of this one hit. “Lovefool” is a plaintive love song for people who are way too hip to like plaintive love songs but still need something to sing at drunken heartbreak karaoke even 20 years later.

Hawaiian shirts: In Luhrmann’s Verona, Romeo spends a lot of time in an unbuttoned Hawaiian shirt. Is this the best possible case for a Hawaiian shirt? To be unbuttoned, floating about Leo’s bare chest? Yes.

John Leguizamo: Looking back, I really wonder why Leguizamo didn’t win some sort of nomination for his portrayal of Tybalt. Here’s a brief list of things he manages to make look awesome: iambic pentameter, soul patches, gun holsters, very angular sideburns, red leather vests with the Virgin Mary on the chest, gunfight choreography that looked like a bullfight, temper tantrums.

20th Century Fox
20th Century Fox

Paul Rudd: Looking back, I also really wonder why people don’t talk about Paul Rudd’s performance as (Dave) Paris, the guy whom Juliet does not want to marry. I wouldn’t say “Oscar,” but I wouldn’t not say “Oscar.” He has maybe five minutes of screen time total, but Rudd’s dancing in an orange astronaut suit during the masquerade ball? Gold. Rudd’s awkward fluttering hand motions while he tries to flirt with Claire Danes? Gold. Also, Rudd’s comeback from this doofy-guy casting to be one of the great alt-heartthrobs of the late 2000s? What a guy.

This little boy singing “When Doves Cry”: Never forget Quindon Tarver, absolutely slaying a version of “When Doves Cry,” backed by a child gospel choir. It was probably the best three minutes of this movie.

OK, so three solid casting choices and one perfect aquatic moment. Should we be grateful for what we have? Possibly. But first, let us consider the list of definitively bad things about this movie:

The Baz Luhrmann of it all: If you love Luhrmann’s other work — Moulin Rouge!, Strictly Ballroom, Australia — you might think, “Man, this movie does not have enough Baz! Give me more Belle Epoque Police covers!” If you’re a more traditional moviegoer, or a person with only five human senses, then you might not be able to endure the super-fast camera cuts, hyperactive line readings, and general Technicolor intensity. Good lord, sit still for one minute; this story is technically a tragedy.

Young Claire Danes and Young Leonardo DiCaprio acting: When they are very quiet, making out, or staring into each other’s eyes, Claire and Leo are the best. But once the murder and poison and teen suicide and anguish parts of the movie kick in, Claire and Leo are like two high school students trying to out-emote each another. Who can do the uglier cry? Who can drop to their knees and cry out to the heavens louder? Who can sweat, drool, and cry at the same time?

The masquerade ball: Typically, movie parties are the best parties — parties you want to go to and live in, parties that make you think, “Man, I wish I were a better host!” Not Romeo + Juliet, which features one of the worst, most suffocating party scenes in cinematic history. Romeo is on ecstasy and can’t handle it. Juliet is dressed like an angel, but everyone else looks like a horrifying monster. Everybody is pretending to have fun by screaming and dancing wildly, but as a viewer it becomes stressful to watch. “Young Hearts Run Free” by Candi Staton is now the single scariest song in disco, thanks to this party.

Mercutio: I respect Luhrmann’s decision to make Mercutio a sexually fluid black man who looks amazing in drag. But Harold Perrineau’s performance was one-note, and that one note was a loud, sort of grating and exhausting “looook at meeeeeeeeeeee!” His death scene was incredibly moving, though I’m not sure if that was just because I was so glad Mercutio wouldn’t yell-act at me anymore. (To be fair, though: He really did look amazing in that white sequined skirt.)

The Montague boys: A baby Jesse Bradford, Jamie Kennedy with pink hair, Dash Mihok (who?), and Zak Orth (who?) — not exactly the Pussy Posse here. (Question: What, exactly, was Tobey Maguire doing in 1996, and would it have prevented him from a few days of work on Romeo + Juliet? I think not.) Also, while we’re here, Bradford’s character, Balthasar, is basically responsible for Romeo’s death, which is not so much his fault as the story’s, but still — not a great look for a sidekick.

20th Century Fox
20th Century Fox

The pacing: This could be Shakespeare’s fault, but it takes forever for Romeo + Juliet to meet the dumb fate that was announced at the very beginning via telecaster announcement. Also, to be perfectly honest, getting married on your second date is extremely ludicrous in a world where televisions and cars and other modern conveniences exist. Where are the studio execs with the “Can we develop this relationship?” notes when you need them?

The whole “mail delivery” plot: I know this is an old horror movie complaint; I’ve seen the supercut. But cellphones did exist in 1996, and nobody had to rely solely on messenger service. Two people literally died because my man did not do a signature-required delivery!

Also the whole Friar Laurence poison thing: We have drug stores now? Again, this is a “Shakespeare problem,” but if you’re going to take liberties like making the Montagues drive around in a yellow lowrider, I feel like we could have addressed this. Also, Laurence, you’re a grown-up, man! You can’t just give children poison as conflict resolution! Did he go to prison? Why didn’t he go to prison?

Did everyone shop at Beacon’s Closet? In Luhrmann’s world, the costumes should be sumptuous and whimsical and “I’m a friend of Anna Wintour” excellent. Maybe it’s because it’s early Baz, but everyone’s costumes sort of look like they got high and went to Beacon’s Closet.

20th Century Fox
20th Century Fox

Not enough Quindon Tarver: Why didn’t he just sing the entire soundtrack and act all the parts and write the movie and direct it? Twenty years later I’m still wondering.

In conclusion: Romeo + Juliet is not good. It is a mess, with plot holes and questionable acting and a soundtrack that does not do ’90s angst any favors. But 20 years later, we live in a cultural landscape that tolerates — and occasionally enjoys — regular live musicals on NBC. There is still space for something as schmaltzy and high strung as this particular Romeo + Juliet. We no longer have to call it good, but we can love the movie for what it was: the best Leonardo, the best “Lovefool,” the best Leguizamo, the best time Claire Danes and Leonardo DiCaprio spent an hour and 45 minutes trying to out-ugly-cry one another. Your teenage years were not very cool, but they still matter.