Because I am a hugely romantic person, I decided the best preparation for this Valentine's Day would be taking in a Gnomeo & Juliet and William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet double feature. The former was a sparsely attended screening (and, yes, I did feel the ticket taker judged me for going to see Gnomeo) and the latter was a midnight screening with a nice mix of couples and perverted nighttime wanderers.
You might be shocked to learn that Gnomeo & Juliet is not a good film. Kelly Asbury has managed to direct a movie that antagonizes Shakespeare from start to finish, in spite of the permanently blushing gnomes of the title. After beginning by calling Romeo and Juliet a "boring" play, he refuses the Bard's language in favor of sub-Shrekian howlers from "let's go kick some grass!" to "a weed by any other name is still a weed." Not even appearances from garden gnome Elton John help very much. Full disclosure: I did not see Gnomeo in 3D, which might have made all the difference...
I'll move to the only element of the film that is not instantly forgettable: Mercutio's role is (perhaps?) filled by a pink lawn flamingo named Featherstone, a somewhat inspired character. He seems a broad caricature of a Hispanic homosexual in the manner of Agador Spartacus in The Birdcage but, to my great fascination, Featherstone is given a backstory in which he is paired with another pink flamingo. This second flamingo, who never speaks, is differentiated from Featherstone by its mascara'd eyes. It is absurd to think that Featherstone would be paired with a straight female lawn ornament so I got to thinking of possible explanations for this lost love. It occurred to me that the other flamingo could be made up in drag. If I had a chance to interview Asbury, this is the only question I would ask about the film.
I first saw Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet in the most appropriate setting: a freshman English class in high school. That was half a lifetime ago and, as I recall, there was actual Leo-induced swooning by some of my classmates those sunny afternoons.
Much criticism of Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet places it in contrast to Franco Zeffirelli's well-loved 1968 version. I found myself oddly defensive of the newer film though, perhaps because we all get defensive about our sentimental youth. The most amusing part of the 1996 reviews is the vicious critique of Luhrmann's "MTVification" of the story (how quaint to remember when MTV played music videos). The frantic, small screen style of the editing is richly nuanced compared to what the channel might inspire today--a reality TV Romeo cast on the Jersey Shore.
Certain engaging details emerge when you're not watching Romeo + Juliet on a 20 inch TV from across a classroom. Benvolio has tanlines from his shoulder holster and Mercutio's Queen Mab speech is capped by the Montagues sampling Ecstasy. I was pleased to see that "Post Haste" delivery services fail to leave important packages at your home just as regularly as UPS. And, although I'm in favor of gun control, the "Swords" and "Daggers" are pretty awesome with their custom pearl inlaid grips blinged with Roman Catholic iconography.
What's not awesome is the diction of all the actors in the film except the dearly departed Pete Postlethwaite, with whom some hint of iambic pentameter remains. I understand nothing Mercutio says (on a perhaps related note I don't recall seeing Harold Perrineau in a film since) but Luhrmann frequently has his characters repeat key lines so we get a second chance at comprehension.
The reason to see the film are the moments of greatness concentrated in the first half hour. I struggle to think of a scene that better conveys love at first sight than the aquarium meeting of DiCaprio's Romeo and Danes' Juliet. The tears made of tropical fish. The doomed ballad "Kissing You" from Des'ree. The obscenely handsome baby Leo. The frenetic wonder of the camera.
Back to my 14-year-old ride home on the number 3 bus, reading my Folger edition of Romeo and Juliet. I got to Act 1 Scene 4 and the star-crossed lovers (I thought about how someone had actually coined that term!) started their Elizabethan flirting. "My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand / To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss."
No matter how you feel about Luhrmann or DiCaprio or Shakespeare, you have to admit: Romeo had some game.