Out the gate, let's admit that Romeo and Juliet is a ridiculous story. At least in terms of plot. Two kids meet, they speak without exchanging names, they touch palms, they kiss, and then later that night...they agree to get married? Sigh. In fact, one of this writer's favorite college professors, the great Shakespearean scholar T.P. Roche, used to posit that the reason the pair has to rush forth with the convoluted plot of the second half of the play was because Juliet probably got pregnant after that first night. A few biological gaps there, but the sentiment continues to resonate.
All this to say, the story only works if there is palpable chemistry between the two leads. To get on board with Shakespeare's most overexposed tragedy, you have to believe that these two teenagers really couldn't resist each other. That they were swept up in completely irresponsible infatuation from the moment they laid eyes on each other. Because, everything else that actually exists in the play is...borderline absurd.
Unfortunately, in the latest retelling of what is arguably the world's most famous love story, such chemistry does not exist. Hailee Steinfeld is the picture of wide-eyed innocence and occasional petulance. And, her Romeo is beautiful (a former Burberry model, in case you forgot those ads), but we didn't feel swept away by the pair — not in the scene where they meet, and not the morning after their wedding night, when they squabble over larks and nightingales.
The problem here isn't that the movie was terrible. It's fine. It's fairly faithful to the text, albeit heavy-handed at some of the sappiest moments, as well as lacking in notice for the bawdy puns most Shakespeare enthusiasts love best in his work. Steinfeld plays the lovelorn teen to perfection, while Paul Giamatti's irresponsible, starry-eyed priest is pitch-perfect and completely steals the show. But, that's about it. And we're firm believers in the idea that you shouldn't remake a classic if you have nothing new to add to the conversation (precisely the same problem we had with the '05 Pride and Prejudice update). There isn't an interesting new point of view here (unless it's that violence is bad and sometimes after a tragedy, you just have to mend fences and move on — but that's hardly a new idea, and the story isn't meant to be beat-you-over-the-head didactic).
Plus, we have to point out that we were distracted by the male leads here.
Brody Damian Lewis feels out of place as the head of the Capulet household. And Ed Westwick actually feels fairly well-cast as the brute that is Tybalt, who shines bright while Mercutio fades to the background. But — and this could just be personal prejudice — Douglas Booth's mild-tempered Romeo reminds us an awful lot of Chace Crawford. There isn't any fire in his performance, and in turn, it makes the whole thing feel a bit reminiscent of a two-hour long episode of Gossip Girl.
We thoroughly enjoyed Gossip Girl in its time, so we're a) not deterring you from watching the movie on that account, and b) pretty certain it will have a solid opening weekend at the box office. But, we're just a little disappointed. Whenever an impressive cast takes on one of the most popular stories of all time, we hope for something meaningful. We were hoping the final product might take on the idea of why this tragedy is so appealing to us; of why two kids making all the wrong mistakes end up playing foil to hate and discord with "true love" built on a single encounter. But, those questions remain unanswered. Because well, this movie turned out to be, ahem, just a lark.