(Air Date: Week Of 10/30/96)
As anyone who has ever sat through non-stop, multiple screenings of "Strictly Ballroom" knows, Baz Luhrmann is a breathtakingly wonderful director, shaping his movies with infinite care and a sense of giddy exhilaration rarely exhibited by anyone over the age of 21. William Shakespeare's "Romeo And Juliet" begins that way, it's fast, it's dazzling and it's playful: You don't want to take your eyes off the screen for a single second. Then it gets down to the nitty gritty of the plot & we learn the truth about Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes at this stage of their careers.
Granted, they both have onscreen chemistry to spare, but it's with the camera, not with each other. HIS ability to look adorable while manufacturing huge quantities of tears does not require any special skills as an ensemble player. HER child-like voice filled the small screen with the raw feelings of a kid, but on the big screen, Danes is best as a silent film star, with emotions cascading all over her eyes and face, but not, alas, on the voice track. There two sure look like they're in love in individual close-ups, but NOT when they're in the same shot. The international appeal of "Strictly Ballroom" had a lot to do with the fact that Paul Mercurio and Tara Morice looked like they were falling in love on and off the dance floor. But Romeo and Juliet never get to dance and their one sequence in bed is even more chaste than Franco Zeffirelli's 1968 teaming of Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey. Even the balcony sequence is embellished by Luhrmann's delightful imagination: it works wonderfully well, but it's pure sleight-of-hand. The trick forces you to focus, but on the trick, not on the limited range of the actors.
The best performance here is by Harold Perrineau as Mercutio: it's a daffy spin on the character, but Perrineau is charismatic enough to pull it off and it works. John Leguizamo is less satisfactory as Tybalt: he looks like no one's idea of a bloodthirsty thug and he sounds like a Munchkin. Paul Sorvino as Fulgenico Capulet and Brian Dennehy as Ted Montague may draw some unintentional laughs because they're such movie-of-the-week-style-Dads and Miriam Margolyes' whatchamacallit accent as the nurse is all over the map! M. Emmet Walsh is (what else?) the apothecary from hell and Pete Postlethwaite is rather kinky as Friar Laurence: check out his first sequence with a couple of choirboys. The use of the good Friar also punches holes in the conceit of Romeo and Juliet in a high tech world: life-and-death information is relayed by mail rather than telephone. (I can just imagine the short-cut term papers using this flick instead of Cliff's Notes: "The movie had a sad ending, because the delivery service messed up.") Baz Luhrmann's artistic impulses are mostly comedic: the best parts of this film are satirical and rather goofy. I suspect that if there were ANY way he could have ended "Romeo and Juliet" with a rumba, he just might have. Next time, maybe.
Copyright 1996 Monica Sullivan
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