Review: 'Romeo and Juliet'

(Zero stars)

So your source material is one of the top-five greatest works of dramatic literature. What do you do? Give it a page-one rewrite, of course. That's the approach taken to the new version of "Romeo and Juliet."

The offender is screenwriter Julian Fellowes: Oscar winner, "Downton Abbey" creator and someone who doesn't want to run into me in a dark alley. Full disclosure: I love "Romeo and Juliet," and you mess with it, I take it personally.

Zeffirelli's 1968 version remains, though not definitive, the best film version. Concepts like a modern-dress updating (Baz Luhrmann's problematic but creative 1996 version) are valid, as are total-rewrite Shakespeare adaptations that create something new (a la "West Side Story" or "Othello" done as the high-school basketball melodrama "O"). But Fellowes' "Shakespeare Made (Sl)eazy" bowdlerization, directed by Italian filmmaker Carlo Carlei in a pretty Renaissance Verona milieu, is misleadingly similar to the original while constantly futzing with the text.

Take Romeo's heartsick appraisal of love: "Love is a smoke raised with the fume of sighs;/Being purged, a fire sparkling in lovers' eyes;/Being vexed, a sea nourished with loving tears./What is it else? A madness most discreet,/A choking gall, and a preserving sweet."

Fellowes' rewrite: "Love is a smoke, raised with the fume of sighs./A madness drenched in syrup, choked with rage." Well, it's shorter. (And as creative writing goes, it qualifies as staggering arrogance.)

Or the Friar's key speech about the duality of nature (and human nature): "The earth, that's nature's mother, is her tomb./What is her burying grave, that is her womb./And from her womb children of divers kind/We sucking on her natural bosom find,/Many for many virtues excellent,/None but for some and yet all different./Oh, mickle is the powerful grace that lies/In herbs, plants, stones, and their true qualities./For naught so vile that on the earth doth live/But to the earth some special good doth give./Nor aught so good but, strained from that fair use/Revolts from true birth, stumbling on abuse./Virtue itself turns vice, being misapplied,/And vice sometime by action dignified..."

That one becomes "The earth is Nature's mother and her tomb./For good or ill, she gives us grave and womb./So varied are the qualities we find/In herbs and plants and stones that we may grind./All that brings health and life may also kill./All that is dark and fatal can and will/Contribute to our pleasures."

It's like everyone learned their lines wrong: Call it the "Drunk History" version of "Romeo and Juliet."

The whole movie is like this, line after line. It's fingernails on a chalkboard for anyone who knows the play, though I guess those who read it once (if that) in high school will probably assume they're hearing Shakespeare the whole time. Maybe that makes it OK? They can just enjoy the movie? (Though the Romeo-as-Ken-doll performance by 20-year-old actor Burberry model Douglas Booth opposite a hapless, 15-year-old Hailee Steinfeld doesn't help.)

The couple of nice moments (like the final tableau involving Benvolio) get choked to death by Fellowes' "madness drenched in syrup." Please steer away your loved ones from this tone-deaf travesty, this misbegotten farrago, this offensive, rank, charmless, near-lifeless, anti-romantic twaddle, a classic tale "told by an idiot." Want to know what I really think?

Rated PG-13 for some violence and thematic elements. One hour, 58 minutes.


Like this comment
Posted by Nayeli
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 16, 2013 at 4:43 pm

This review is surprising. An Academy Award winning writer, superb actors, great locations, authentic period costumes and based upon a great play...and this doesn't even earn a single star?

I haven't seen the film yet, but I can't imagine that it doesn't merit a single star. RottenTomatoes has it with an average rating of 4.4 out of 10. That would be 44% -- hardly a "zero star" rating. The audience at RottenTomatoes is much more generous with a fresh 61% review.

I'm not saying that this is a bad review or that I necessarily disagree; however, there aren't many films that earn an absolute zero. I have a friends tell me that it was "so-so," "just okay" and "something you expect to find on Masterpiece Theater on PBS."

I will say this though: This review is almost seems "petty" by resorting to name calling. "Told by an idiot?" How would the author like it if we said that this review was "written by an idiot?" There is this thing called "tact" that allows a critic to review a film without resorting to cheap shots at the writer.

Like this comment
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Oct 16, 2013 at 8:30 pm

full of sound and fury Signifying nothing.

Like this comment
Posted by Let 'er rip!
a resident of Crescent Park
on Oct 16, 2013 at 11:45 pm

...this tone-deaf travesty, this misbegotten farrago, this offensive, rank, charmless, near-lifeless, anti-romantic twaddle, a classic tale "told by an idiot."
I like it when a reviewer really lets it rip. Thank you! So much crap gets positive reviews, it's refreshing to read the real stuff.
Canavese warned us that he knows the play and loves it. His love was betrayed by the film. Let 'er rip, reviewer!

Like this comment
Posted by CrescentParkAnon.
a resident of Crescent Park
on Oct 17, 2013 at 2:13 am

I agree with Nayeli, this review is really over the top, and out of the boundaries - worthy of the ranting nuts on IMDB flame wars. When you say you review something from 1 to 5 stars, you are completely unprofessional - and should be fired - when you go off like that and give something 0 stars.

Like this comment
Posted by Nayeli
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 18, 2013 at 12:49 pm

It is strange, but it is almost as if the reviewer holds to such absolute loyalty to the source material -- every dot and tittle -- that he cannot stomach when the screenwriter strays from it.

Oddly enough, I am still waiting for a faithful adaptation of THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO. It is my favorite book. Unfortunately (for me), I have never watched a faithful adaptation of it. The most recent adaptation, with Jim Caviezel in the role of Edmund Dantes, started well but turned into a typical "Zorro" storyline about half-way through.

While I was disappointed that the adaptation didn't stick to the actual story (and meandered far from it), the actual adaptation wasn't "all bad." It was just a different story.

The same is true of many (if not most) adaptations -- especially of Shakespeare. Have the definitive HAMLET ever been filmed yet?

Like this comment
Posted by The enemy you know
a resident of Professorville
on Oct 18, 2013 at 5:39 pm

It is too familiar a story, remade too many times. Give it a long, long rest, please.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

Burger chain Shake Shack to open in Palo Alto
By Elena Kadvany | 5 comments | 2,626 views

Eat, Surf, Love
By Laura Stec | 3 comments | 982 views

Couples: So You Married Mom or Dad . . .
By Chandrama Anderson | 0 comments | 969 views

The Cost of Service
By Aldis Petriceks | 2 comments | 605 views