On Bard Time Review: No matter how they treat his plays, the power of Shakespeare's words shines through.

November 01, 1996|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,SUN FILM CRITIC

In the arts, perhaps it's not patriotism but Shakespeare that's the last refuge of the scoundrel.

We have before us, by a happy coincidence of scheduling, two magnificently scoundrelized Shakespearean texts, projects calculated brazenly to call more attention to their living makers .. than their dead author, in the hope (or delusion) of making the Bard "accessible" to the modern sensibility.

The more outrageous is "William Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet," as constructed by Baz Luhrmann, the Aussie auteur of "Strictly Ballroom." In the early going, the film is more strictly Luhrmann than strictly Shakespeare. Set in a universe neither modern nor Elizabethan, but more a post-apocalyptic punk fantasy as decorated by the chief buyer for Pier 1, it features the Montagues and the Capulets as competing vice gangs in Verona Beach, Calif. Tybalt is a Hispanic pimp, Mercutio a cross-dressing foofoo, and everyone carries a .45 instead of a sword. The movie is so over-hyped and over-cranked and the rap music behind it is so loud that initially the one word that will never occur to you is ... Shakespeare.

That's not to say it lacks wit. It has tons of wit: For example, the story is framed as a local TV news report, complete to anchor woman and sexy computer graphic behind her reading "Star Crossed Lovers." She reads Shakespeare's intro to the play not in his iambic pentameter but in the gliding sing-song of the professional television announcer. In another stroke of sheer genius, Father Laurence (Pete Postlethwaite) sends Romeo news of Juliet's death deception by Fed Ex!

So this is Romeo and Juliet turned inside out, vacuumed for the lint of the past, and sent forth under Dennis Rodman's hair to face today's barbaric teens. It desperately tries to make itself relevant, by playing a riff on the melody of gang violence as it stalks the inner city. Jerome Robbins did the same thing back when gang-bangers were called juvenile delinquents, though somewhat more stylishly. And, he had Leonard Bernstein writing the music, not Butthole Surfers.

The two kids are played by hot young things Claire Danes and Leonardo DiCaprio. She's still trying to find her so-called life and has a valley girl's cuteness and innocence; he's still writing the basketball diaries, and is all scrawny anger and big-headed talent. Together, they're so young and undeveloped (neither has a chest) their love seems blasphemous and tender at once, and the violence worked upon them by themselves and their society oddly powerful.

For what happens, magically, is that after a while Luhrmann goes away and only Shakespeare remains. What this film proves -- as does "Looking for Richard" -- is the utter irreducibility of Shakespeare. Play him in fright wigs and tutus with .45 Para-Ords in shoulder holsters, and what you remember most and feel hardest is still Shakespeare. In other words, the movie works, powerfully, not in spite of but because of its author. He knew best then; he knows best now. He's one dead white male who got it right.

"Looking for Richard," playing exclusively at the Towson Commons, reaches almost the same point, but it gets there by a different route. This one is constructed by Al Pacino as a documentary of a powerful actor obsessed with a powerful role in a powerful play, and trying to discover its meanings by a variety of multi-media events. Alas, what cripples it in the early going is its director's fascination with its star, made all the more unsavory by the fact that each is the same man and his name is Al Pacino.

The movie emits vapors of the dreaded vanity project. The toxin of Pacino's ego is everywhere, built in at the conceptual level: This movie isn't about "Richard III" but about how much Al I likes "Richard III." So Pacino has himself shot in loving close-up for the longest time, capturing his many adorable sides. There's Al the intellectual and Al the goof-off and Angry Al and Al the man of the people and Upper West Side Al.

Worse again, for some bizarre reason, this distinguished 50-odd-year-old world-class performer loves to wear a baseball hat preciously backward on his head, like a 14-year-old hip hop artist. Worse still, since the film was shot over many years (clear evidence Pacino had no idea what he was doing for the longest time) he frequently appears with completely different looks and new arrangements of facial hair. It's like "Mr. Potatohead does Shakespeare."

But much of the material is powerful, as Pacino wanders through theatrical culture, interviewing the great Peter Brooks, the even greater Sir John Gielgud (polite, brilliant, infinitely more impressive than shaggy Pacino), and the not-so-great Kevin Kline, as well as a number of baffled scholars (for largely comic effect).

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