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Romeo & Juliet (2013): The Massacre of an Iconic Love Story

A few weeks back, a heinous crime was committed at the AMC Fashion Valley 18. At 4:20 pacific time, a small audience, myself included, witnessed the brutal slaughter of a beloved literary author and playwright and his most famous work. The victim's name was William Shakespeare and the work was Romeo & Juliet, the world-famous romantic drama about a pair of star-crossed lovers from feuding families who fall in love and vow to be together, but violent and disastrous events threaten to destroy both the lovebirds, but both families as well. The culprits are director Carlo Carlei and Oscar-winning screenwriter Julian Fellows (Godsford Park), and Relativity Media, the independent film studio that released this piece of crap.

Where do I even begin with this one!?

Let's start with comparing lines from the original text, to the dialogue in the film adaptation. Take Romeo as he engages with his cousin, Benvolio, in a conversation about how lovesick the poor bastard is (Act I, Scene 2):
Love is a smoke raised with the fume of sighs;Being purged, a fire sparkling in lovers' eyes;Being vex'd a sea nourish'd with lovers' tears:What is it else? a madness most discreet,A choking gall and a preserving sweet.
And here's the "new" version of said line/metaphor:
Love is a smoke, raised with the fumes of sighs;
A madness drenched in syrup, choked with rage.
I didn't cut anything out. That's the actual line. And if you listen rather closely, you'll hear the sound of the Bard turning in his grave.

Julian Fellows, an Academy Award-winning screenwriter, took Shakespeare's metaphor about what being in love is like in the eyes of poor Romeo, and turned it into this half-assed, meaningless load of swill. This is the work of a two-bit hack who thought, "Let's spice up and shorten William's language so that the Twilight/Gossip Girl generation can digest the dialogue!", not a man who created Downtown Abbey! There's another line, this time from Friar Lawrence about human nature, but Peter Canaverse of Groucho Reviews already talked about this in detail, so to avoid repeating what he said, I'm just going to get right down to the problem with what Fellows' did:  To take Shakespeare's language and try to shorten it or make it more palatable for mainstream audiences, you remove the rhythm, weight, emotion and meaning behind the lines the Bard wrote and it becomes the sort of pretentious, melodramatic drivel that you'd find in a daytime TV soap.

Speaking of soap opera, the acting is just that: like watching a soap, it's over the top to the point of sheer unintentional laughter. I understand that kind of flare is needed to tackle this kind of playwright, but the it would work better if the lines weren't compromised to high Hell. As a result, actors are speaking Shakespeare, but any sense of urgency, menace and excitement is absent. Take the scene where Mercutio (Christian Cooke) and Tybalt (Ed Westwick) draw their swords and battle in the streets of Verona. This should be an exciting scene where two arch-rivals fight to the death, but the heat of the moment is absent, and there's no emotional investment when Tybalt slays Mercrutio, leaving Romeo in a rage over his death.

And since I've brought up Romeo, let me talk about the actor playing him, which is Douglas Booth, who starred in the previously reviewed LOL. He's pretty and he can make teen girls in the audience swoon, but he has all the personality of a bowl of milk. I look at him, and I can't help that he escaped off of an Abercombie & Fitch photo shoot or something. I get that Romeo is supposed to be good looking, but he's also supposed have a sense of naivete about him; that he's really in love, but because he's so young and idealistic, he fails to see how his romance with Juliet will have disastrous consequences for himself and those around him.

Sadly, this takes us to another big flaw in the film: Juliet, or specifically, the young actor playing her.

The last time we saw Haliee Steinfeld, she was matching Jeff Bridges line for line in the Coen Brothers' True Grit; delivering Joel and Ethan's dialogue with such authority that I couldn't help but feel blown away by her performance as the headstrong Mattie Ross, the 14 year-old girl who hired Rooster Cogburn to hunt down the bastard who shot her father dead and fled the crime. Steinfeld was rightly awarded with an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress, and I've been anticipating the next role she'd appear in.

In a word: Jesus Christ.

I've not seen a more lackluster and dull performance by any actor this year, and it's a tragedy that this film, her big follow up from True Grit, is her rushing through the lines almost at a hurried pace. I know the script is a bastardization of the original source material, but Steinfeld looks hopelessly lost as Juliet. This is a major miscast here, as the young actor has no idea how to convey the emotions of her character. She's the right age to play Juliet, but she doesn't have the range to pull this off.

Lastly: the romantic chemistry between the two leads is almost non-existent. The moment the two young lovebirds lock eyes onto one another, the connection should be instant, and we should feel there there is the strong magnetism pulling the two together. The scene where Romeo climbs Juliet's ivy-covered balcony and share a passionate kiss; we should feel this sense of eroticism and heat that if her parents weren't home, she'd guide him into her chamber and then....well, guide him into her chamber (yes, I'm ashamed of myself for that pun). That moment on screen has all the heat of dead ash. Both Steinfeld and Booth don't have the sparks to make us believe in their romance, especially when it takes a turn for the tragic. I've never seen a more un-romantic paring since Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson as Bella Swan and Edward Cullen in the Twilight movies, and when I'm comparing the blandness of that tedious franchise to your adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, something has gone seriously wrong.

The only good thing I will say about this movie is that Lesley Manville and Paul Giamatti are quite good as the Nurse for House Capulet and Friar Lawrence, respectively. Even with a terrible script, these two veteran actors are still able to convey the spirit of Shakespeare's story, and it makes it all the more frustrating that Fellows could be so arrogant to try and make an already timeless story more easy for audiences to comprehend and understand.

Romeo and Juliet isn't just the worst Shakespeare adaptation to date (Baz Luhrmann, you are forgiven for your misguided attempt to modernize the two lovebirds in Romeo + Juliet), but this is the worst movie of 2013, by far. It's one thing to modernizer Shakespeare, but to take his writing, dumb it down for the tween/teenage market and essentially pair the Bard with Stephanie Myers and her brand of fake romantic bullshit? That is downright unforgivable.

1/2 stars out of ****


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