‘Romeo and Juliet’ remake ‘R#J’ misses the mark

The update of Shakespeare's tale of star-crossed lovers premiered at Sundance but the update falls short

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Much about director Carey WilliamsR#J, a modern adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, will likely be praised. It centers two young actors of color, Francesca Noel and Cameron Engels. It’s helmed by a Black filmmaker. And it finds a way to propel a 500-year-old play into the present day. But, fam, R#J is just not a good movie.

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In fact, it’s pretty horrendous—and right from the start. Williams immediately drops his audience inside an increasingly confusing vortex where his protagonists, two teenagers in an urban neighborhood, exist in today’s world but speak in iambic pentameter, the English poetry style made famous by Shakespeare.

Sundance R#J Shakespeare
Cameron Engels and Francesca Noel in R#J

To be doubly clear, they say things like “Where art thou” and “Ye,” and not in jest. This is just how they talk. Intellectual audiences might assume in the beginning that the two are simply boning up on their British literature or practicing for a recital. Nope, buckle up, this is the entire ride.   

It takes a minute or 20 to come to terms with this, as even fans of Shakespeare can admit that the language is a bit ridiculous in a contemporary setting. It’s somehow more absurd in R#J because there is a lot going on in the film, though none of it makes a whole lot of sense or is engaging.

Williams—with co-screenwriters Rickie Castaneda and Oleksii Sobolev—thrusts the audience inside preparations for a high school party of some sort. There is lots of yelling and energy from the young cast, especially Siddiq Saunderson, who plays Romeo’s over-the-top friend that tries to hype him up as he applies makeup. So, there’s a lot to focus on.

That’s on top of the fact that R#J heavily relies on rampant text messages to move the story along. For those unfamiliar with the classic Shakespearean play, a ton of drama ensues between its titular star-crossed lovers. Their families despise each other, so they condemn the relationship, which makes the couple all the more determined to stay together. As their clans fight it out, the resulting stir among the community ultimately leads to the teens dying by suicide.

In R#J, we must attempt to follow all of these events and are forced to read much about it through the characters’ rapid social media and text messaging.

It’s laborious and wrongly assumes that the audience cares enough to follow the tedious commentary of melodramatic teenagers. Rarely does anyone ever pick up the phone or, in this case, do a video call. But when they do, they speak Shakespeare, so you’ve checked out regardless.

While many filmmakers and showrunners have turned to text dialogue to stay current, few actually rely on it to propel their entire story. Why? Partly because it would look like R#J—hectic and goofy. But also because it presents a challenge to the actors. They look a little silly as we hear Noel as Juliet crying dramatically, but only see her feverishly type about it on Instagram using teardrop emojis.

Carey Williams (Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute)

Or, as Tybalt (Diego Tinoco), Juliet’s cousin, becomes violently enraged, we only really catch glimpses of it through chopped up YouTube or Instagram video footage. Can’t we ever just watch the movie?

R#J is like an experiment gone horribly awry. It’s unfortunate because, on one hand, it could inspire young audiences to read Shakespeare. But on the other, they might never go near Much Ado About Nothing or A Midsummer Night’s Dream if they think it’s anything like this. In an effort to attract that audience the screenwriters add a Black Lives Matter element to the story, but by the time you realize that’s where it’s heading, you may have finally given up on it.

Departing some from the source material, and revealed entirely through frenzied text messages, issues of media, bullying, injustice, and suicide anchor the film’s climax, but by then, R#J has effectively lost its audience.

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Those filmmaking choices could have been abandoned almost entirely in order to further develop some of the film’s early imagery and narrative. For instance, Juliet wears a Día de Los Muertos mask at the aforementioned party that seems like it probably symbolizes something important, but who knows why. Saunderson, despite a vibrant performance, is practically devoured by the movie’s shtick. He deserved better.

And so did Noel and Engels who do make a charming pair and seem committed to the film’s bizarre style, but cannot rise above the disastrous filmmaking. And really, no actor probably could.   

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