I Defy You, Josh
In praise of Baz Luhrmann's funny, touching, totally insane film
By Kimberley Jones,
1:20PM, Mon. Aug. 18, 2008
Olivier versus Branagh is the obvious battleground for a debate about the merits of old versus new – and we'll get to them in due time. But I think the more fun place to start, and probably the more polarizing, is with Romeo and Juliet. We've had two iconic productions in 30 years' time – Franco Zeffirelli's 1968 faithful adaptation and Baz Lurhmann's wildly re-imagined 1996 version.
I'm gonna hold off on saying much about Zeffirelli's take until you chime in – other than to note that 1) about 30 seconds into watching it, I flashbacked to high school (the last time I watched it) and immediately started to nod off, and 2) isn't Leonard Whiting, who plays Romeo (and plays him like a sniveling twerp, I might add), a dead ringer for Jared Leto?
So on to Baz. I have to say, before I rewatched the film (for the first time in five years or so) I thought I'd have to do a whole song and dance about how I was a freshman in college when I first saw it – perfectly ripe for its charms – and that no matter its faults, or its datedness, and even if I'd long outgrown having an R+J poster on my dorm room wall, it would still hold a place in my heart.
Eff the song and dance. There's no need. Turns out I still love it. LOVE, LOVE, LOVE IT. How do I count the ways?
I love the demented, Looney Tunes opening brawl between Capulet and Montague.
I love the sound design – Tybalt's boot scraping on asphalt as he stamps out a cigarillo – and I love the soundtrack – witness Romeo's slo-mo catwalk twirl to the sounds of Radiohead. (Is it just me, or does Luhrmann festishize Leonardo DiCaprio in a way he doesn't his equally beautiful co-star, Claire Danes?)
I love the Catholic iconography, the dramatic landscape, and the violent weather patterns, all as signposts for the fiery temperaments within.
I love the reimagining of Romeo as a lovesick, wannabe poet in Versace threads.
I love Juliet as a sensible girl transitioning from stuffed animals to a real live breathing boy.
I love their sweetly innocent first meet set in a co-ed bathroom separated by a fish tank (thus beginning a water motif that extends throughout – in between rainstorms and frequent plunges into the Capulet pool, poor Romeo can't seem to stay dry). Their wordless introduction to each other is a wonder to behold – especially Danes' laughter. Danes, especially as a young actress, seemed to have zero filter when it came to both her laughter and her tears. Both were always a little ungainly, a little shocking, and all the more heart-rending for it. See her one awful, aching sob in the final scene, ricocheting off the walls of the sanctuary, then swallowed as she pulls herself together to, well, pull the trigger.
And finally, I love how Baz Luhrmann straddles – not always effortlessly – the glib and the deeply sincere.
Twelve years on, and it's still a funny, touching, totally insane film. And while Leo might snivel, too – total crybaby, actually; Juliet was always made of stronger stuff – his drop-to-the-knees, spit-flying sob "I defy you, stars!" kills me every time.
This is a movie made by a delirious romantic, made for the like, who isn't afraid of making a canonical work a little bit messy, a little bit nutso. Yup, that's Romeo and Mercutio popping E (and I've got more to say about Queen Mab) – and ecstatic is entirely the word I would use for R+J's aesthetic and its ethos.