** (out of four)
At a time when emoticons receive maximum analysis of intent, how lovely it could be for young viewers to see the kind of love that needs only a few glances to initiate shared promises of infinite fidelity.
At least, that’s probably how the pitch meeting went when someone incorrectly argued that the world needs another traditional adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.” Earlier this year “Warm Bodies” played with the story and found sweet new blood by transforming the Bard’s tale into a zombie rediscovering his heart. Joss Whedon’s recent, all-my-friends-at-my-house take on another Shakespeare work, “Much Ado About Nothing,” contained uncertain performances and a considerable whiff of self-indulgence, but at least the geek icon didn’t play it safe.
Yes, “Gnomeo and Juliet” filtered the classic through animated gnomes, but we shant get into that.
Alas, even those who haven’t seen the 1968 “Romeo and Juliet” film and don’t love Baz Luhrmann’s modernized 1996 version will feel major déjà vu in this new—and by new I mean not at all new-seeming—production. You know the story: The Capulets and Montagues hate each other. Young, attractive offspring of the families (Oscar nominee Hailee Steinfeld of “True Grit,” Douglas Booth) tragically fall for each other. Swords clang. A man of the cloth (Paul Giamatti) concocts a rather absurd plan that Juliet, blinded by longing for her Romeo, accepts without even stopping to ask, “Wait, you want me to fake my own death?” And so forth.
Though their 5-year age difference kinda makes her look like his little sister, Steinfeld and Booth carry their lovelorn parts well enough. As Juliet’s quick-tempered cousin Thibault, Ed Westwick (“Gossip Girl”), um, flares his nostrils a lot. The newlyweds’ consummation of marriage contains a noticeable ass-grab I don’t recall from previous installments.
Mostly, though, director Carlo Carlei and writer Julian Fellowes (“Gosford Park,” “The Tourist”) and a boatload of string instruments work too hard on comedy and gloom so devoid of surprise. Hitting all the same marks in a story everyone knows causes impatience, not swooning and heartbreak. It’s a shame no one came to the table with any ideas; even if “R&J” may strike some as a document of the futility of harebrained schemes in the pre-cellphone era, it always holds up as evidence that trading an eye for an eye will only result in a town full of cyclopses. Or is it cyclopi?
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