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Larding the Bard

The movie is respectfully titled William Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet, but don't expect anything like a traditional interpretation of the Bard. In fact, the latest big-screen adaptation of the 400-year-old tragedy may well be the most exuberantly muddled update of a classic work since someone decided to transform The Pirates of Penzance into a goofy pop-rock musical known as Pirate Movie.

This is something more thoroughly bizarre, more astonishingly wrong-headed, than a mere folly. This is, quite simply, the damnedest thing you're likely to see at your multiplex all year.

Australian filmmaker Baz Luhrmann (Strictly Ballroom) has transferred Shakespeare's original text to a cacophonous and overcrowded never-never land, Verona Beach, a place that resembles a patchwork quilt of MTV, Mexico City (where the movie actually was filmed) and Miami Vice. In this version of the story, the volatile Montagues and Capulets are white-bread punks and sneering Latino thugs who drive gas-guzzling cars, wear huge handguns as fashion statements and clash in street brawls that seem to be choreographed by John Woo and scored by Ennio Morricone. (An early encounter suggests a speeded-up outtake from Robert Rodriguez's Desperado.) When things get too far out of hand, Prince Escalus -- renamed Captain Prince and costumed as a modern-day police chief -- swoops down in his helicopter and warns everyone to chill. The older folks, including the long-feuding Ted Montague (Brian Dennehy) and Fulgenico Capulet (Paul Sorvino), take heed. But the wild young bucks in their respective camps promise even rougher times ahead. Meanwhile, TV newscasters issue grim reports of the mounting body count in an inner-city war zone "where civil blood makes civil hands unclean."

Luhrmann has more ideas than he knows what to do with, but that doesn't stop him from trying to use each one of them. Unlike Richard Loncraine's audacious and hugely entertaining version of Richard III, which re-imagined Shakespeare's drama of a 15th-century tyrant as the tale of a fascist coup in 1930s England, this new Romeo & Juliet is not bound by the logic of specificity or the unity of concept. Rather, this is what-the-hell, anything-can-happen filmmaking at its most exhaustingly undisciplined.

One moment, Luhrmann is playing for broad laughs by presenting domestic scenes as herky-jerky, silent movie-style farce. The next moment, he indulges in the soft-core romanticism of a lush music video or an artsy-fartsy TV commercial. And then, a few moments after that, Luhrmann pokes us in the ribs with yet another ever-so-clever sight gag involving pistols that are identified as rapiers -- see, right there on the gun barrel, Rapier 9mm -- or swords, in order to fit descriptions offered in Shakespeare's dialogue. Somewhere around the point when Montague yells for his "longsword," then grabs an automatic weapon inscribed with that as a brand name, you may be ready to shout rude things at the screen.

If you do, however, be prepared for the people on-screen to shout right back. A great many people do a huge amount of damage to Shakespeare's poetry in this Romeo & Juliet. Most of the mangling is done by over-zealous young actors who confuse volume with emotion, and evidence few signs of classical training. A few of them -- most notably, Dash Mihok as a mush-mouthed Benvolio -- actually sound like they've never even seen another Shakespeare production, much less acted in one. They tend to rush into scenes at full gallop, shouting their dialogue like street-corner vernacular, then dash out of camera range like vaudevillians avoiding well-aimed tomatoes. To be sure, the blame must be shared by Luhrmann -- after all, he's the one who directed the actors to behave this way -- but, then again, there's more than enough blame for everyone.

Perhaps the most disappointing of the ranters and ravers is Harold Perrineau, the magnetic young black actor who was so marvelously subtle and precise last year in Wayne Wang's Smoke. Here, as a dreadlock-festooned Mercutio, he is unnervingly shrill and unbearably campy. It doesn't help that Perrineau spends almost half of his time on-screen in garish female drag, his disguise of choice as he gatecrashes a costume party at Capulet manor.

As amateurish as the young actors appear, some of their elders come off even worse. Paul Sorvino plods through the movie with an accent that defies description -- part Irish, part Italian, part Eastern European -- and an expression that indicates severe gas pains. As his vain wife, Diane Venora has her own accent troubles. That is, she doesn't always remember she's supposed to have one. Here and there, she sounds like a dinner-theater Blanche DuBois; at other points, however, she sounds like -- well, like Diane Venora. John Leguizamo comes perilously close to being a walking and talking ethnic slur as a hot-and-nasty Tybalt. But British-born Miriam Margolyes is even worse -- an ethnic joke. She is nothing short of embarrassing in her efforts to play Nurse as a hotheaded Hispanic housemaid.

After a frenetic first hour or so, the power of the original text kicks in, and Romeo & Juliet begins to affect you almost in spite of itself. That isn't nearly enough, but it is just about everything that this misguided effort has to offer. Throughout the movie, Leonardo DiCaprio is hopelessly out of his depth as Romeo, relying heavily on attitude and posturings more appropriate for a glossy magazine ad. But Claire Danes makes a sporadically luminescent Juliet, and her performance actually gets better, and more compelling, as the drama draws to its tragic conclusion. To be fair, it must be noted that at least one of Lurhmann's smart-ass touches is genuinely amusing: Friar Laurence (played by Pete Postlethwaite, a classically trained actor who moves and sounds like one) isn't able to warn Romeo that Juliet isn't really dead because he sends the message via Post Haste Dispatch, a delivery service that absolutely, positively doesn't get it there overnight. It's a small joke, but, in this context, a welcome one.

-- Joe Leydon

William Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet.
Directed by Baz Luhrmann. With Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes.
Rated PG-13.
122 minutes.

 
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