City Paper is not for tourists
Baz Luhrmann’s William Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet is just adorable. You want to hug it and kiss it and squeeze it to your bosom; then you want to slap it and tell it to shut up.
Set in “Verona Beach, Fla.” and loaded with Cuban-Haitian-Catholic-tropical-gangster-decadence delirium trimmings, this faithful but insane adaptation doesn’t even seem to consider such trite schoolroom goals as making the classic “relevant” to “today’s teens.” (All they need to know, as many critics still don’t, is that it’s “Wherefore art thou no comma Romeo?” and have them look up “wherefore.”) Romeo & Juliet is bitchen to today’s teensand anyone else who can sit through two hours of kaleidoscope-colored machine-gun camerawork without succumbing to an epileptic fit.
The prologue (most of it) comes at us first as a newscast, but Luhrmann can’t resist repeating it twice againit just does the job so well. That’s typical of Luhrmann and Craig Pearce’s screenplay; with some stripping and reassigningnot much more than you’d find on any modern stagethe language isn’t so much relevant as tremendously sensible. During this most romantic of Shakespeare’s plays, you find yourself nodding in agreement with the many good points.
Luhrmann’s best quality is his lack of shamehe doesn’t care how silly he looks, or that you could laugh at as much of his film as you admire. Silliness becomes himhe has a faultless touch for depicting the kind of high-strung female who personified stale, whipped-cream dance standards in his first feature, Strictly Ballroom; he styles and films them as if they’re Pomeranians. He is not afraid of Shakespeare, wrenching and twisting all manner of references Elizabethan to fit into his beautifully phony modern landscape: Surfers flock to Rosencrantzy’s hot-dog stand; the weapons are guns with names like “Rapier” and “Dagger”; religious iconography goes over the top in a hail of flower garlands and vulgar Virgin Mary statuettes.
Claire Danes and Leonardo DiCaprio make a gorgeous, tender, and convincing pair of lovers. She has that amazing, big face that shimmers from girlish softness to womanly resolve and seems unable to express emotion without attendant thoughtfulness. DiCaprio’s Romeo is fierce and ardent with Juliet, convincingly vulnerable when opting out of rivalry means submitting to a beating. Both speak the language well, sometimes beautifully, especially Danes, who is saddled with the tough lines, the ones famous enough to be heard in beer commercials.
Actually, everyone’s good, no matter how frivolously they’re tricked outonly Pete Postlethwaite’s wonderful, shamanistic Father Laurence escapes the attack of the wardrobe mistress. John Leguizamo snaps and burns as the feral, flamenco-style Tybalt; Dash Mihok plays Benvolio as a dangerous, thick-necked goon in a frat-boy buzzcut; Paul Rudd’s Paris sucks up to Dad Capulet with smarmy skill reminiscent of Eddie Haskell; Miriam Margolyes is perfection as Juliet’s imperious, protective nurse.
But they must vie for attention with the set design, the locations (all Mexican), and even the thong-wearing beach bunnies, who stroll past the camera under the looming proscenium arch of the dilapidated “Sycamore Grove” theater (which sits on the beach like a decaying sentinel and gives Romeo a place to sulk less goofy and improbable than an actual sycamore grove. Even the weather is art-directed: Skies glower on cue, and the sea froths in response).
Still, Luhrmann’s intense feeling for this story never lets up; its energy is as powerful as the emotions it describes. The garish, glorious look of the thing never obscures the characters’ feelings. When Danes and DiCaprio hide, fleetingly, in an elevator to kiss and banter, they imbue the scene with so much passion that the language fades under the roar of their emotions; they simply drown in each others’ presence. It may be utterly ridiculous, but this Romeo & Juliet is a love story first and last.
Kurt Vonnegut Jr. is often dismissed as a campus favorite or counterculture jester for his clear-eyed and very funny depictions of the modern disasters of war. Writers with Big Themes, it seems, shouldn’t tell jokes. But Vonnegut’s deceptively simple yarns are not silly, they are not fantasies, and they do not exaggerate. After all, when he laughs about the insanities, big and small, people get up to in wartime, he is merely reciting from memory.
Lingering, amused, absurdist, and no more or less sentimental or outraged than the situation demands, his is a voice that has no visual equivalents. Even the flatness of his shrugging tone is pre-ironic. 1961’s Mother Night sports none of the tricks and tropes that infuriate serious readers who like their serious writers poker-facedspace aliens, scatological drawings, impossible inventions, and turns of fate. Nevertheless, the filming of it requires a director who, like the author and his fictional narrator, can be rocked back on his heels by nothing except perhaps the break of another day of this madness.
Boy director Keith Gordon (The Chocolate War, A Midnight Clear) meets this frightening tall tale head on, respecting much of it, tossing out some, and nimbly reworking the structure to let it unravel smoothly off the screen, shifting into flashbacks and throwing out awful little revelations like grenades to sustain the tension. Befitting its wartime setting and its ambiguous hero’s ambiguous affiliations, Mother Night is as expressive as any friendly American, expressionist in the German style.
The movie opens outside an Israeli prison. As Bing Crosby’s fulsome, sentimental, scarily confident “White Christmas” soars and sighs, Howard W. Campbell Jr. (Nick Nolte) is being frog-marched into a cell. He is asked to write his memoirs before going on trial. The prison scenes are shot in rich black and white. But once Campbell sits before a wartime typewriterfeaturing a key with the double lightning bolts of the SSthe memories come in saturated color, Beckmann blues and reds and blacks, the yellow of German girls’ hair almost blinding. The movie cuts back to the cell only for strange, desultory conversations between the prisoner and his guards, who aren’t what they appear to be, either, and occasional counsel from Adolf Eichmann in the cell above. (“You’re lucky you can type,” says Eichmann. “I’m writing mine in longhand.”)
Before all this happened, Campbell was an American playwright raised in Berlin, married to a German actress (Sheryl Lee) with whom he was besotted beyond reason. Military and government higher-ups liked his sentimental plays, and he had no trouble with attending their parties, the better to show off his Helga, his only true allegiance. Indeed, he’s watching her when the first reference to Auschwitz is heard, or barely overheardHelga’s laughing face muffles everything. Campbell’s absorption in his wife is both scary and rapturouswhat else is he capable of blocking out?
Everything, it turns out, including his identity, beliefs, honor, and soul. Approached by a War Department operative (John Goodman), Campbell agrees to star in the most elaborate fiction of his career. He becomes more Nazi than the Nazis, calling himself “the last free American” and broadcasting intricately choreographed messages of hate and evil that contain, through pauses, coughs, and throat-clearings pencilled in by another agent, intelligence crucial to the Allied effort. They win the war, of course, but while Campbell secretly fed information to the Americans, he openly energized skeptical SS officers, braced a German public weary of fighting, and inspired legions of sympathizers back home. Mother Night’s moral is simple and true: You are what you pretend to be, so be careful what you pretend to be.
After the war, Campbell hears that Helga is deadhe will lose his beautiful wife twice; two times his “nation of two” is depleted by half. This man has poor luck in allegiances. The U.S. government denies any connection with him but quietly ships him to New York City. Taking an apartment in Greenwich Village, Campbell toasts Helga’s picture and whittles a rude chess set to pass the time. Looking for a partner, he bypasses the snappish, unhistorical-minded Dr. Epstein (Arye Gross) and knocks on the door of George Kraft (Alan Arkin), a sly, taciturn painter who has also lost his wife and also has a wartime past of great interest.
In this mundane environmenta building of war-damaged natives and expatriatesabsurdities begin to pile up. Campbell’s whereabouts are released, attracting a gang of neo-Nazi loonies, his resurrected wife, the Soviets, and the War Department contact now disgusted by the problematic former mole. Nolte is wonderful as the ultra-subdued Campbell, conked on the head by fate. He is almost thoughtful throughout a lifetime of self-delusion, until the moment Goodman, wearing his most benevolent expression, tells him, “Everyone knows what you are.” Campbell’s face crumples in disbeliefimagine being the last to know.
Sequestered in the neo-Nazi underground, tended by his new friendsall of whom behave with the same unbalanced equanimity that makes the monstrously foolish Campbell look like the last sane man in New Yorkhe learns enough about his fate and his self to want to take both back. But even his redemption is a farce; he pleads to Dr. Epstein that he wants to surrender to an Auschwitzer. “Then find one who thinks about Auschwitz all the time!” the doctor snaps, slamming the door. For his sin of ignoring the existence of Auschwitz the first time, Campbell must seek out its evidence in the end. Perhaps the moral of this story is a more sinister one: If you don’t choose something to believe in, something will be chosen for you. CP