Synopsis: A comedic retelling of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” told from the point of view of Romeo’s jilted ex, Rosaline, the woman Romeo first claims to love before he falls for Juliet.
Stars: Kaitlyn Dever, Sean Teale, Isabela Merced, Kyle Allen, Bradley Whitford, Minnie Driver, Christopher McDonald, Nicholas Rowe, Spencer Stevenson, Nico Hiraga
Director: Karen Maine
Running Length: 96 minutes
TMMM Score: (5/10)
Review: When Shakespeare in Love won the Best Picture Oscar in 1998 over Saving Private Ryan, it represented not just a victory of the smaller, more art-house film over a thundering military blockbuster from a major studio. It demonstrated that other writers (Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard) had cracked the code that had perplexed many up until that point and still does to this day. How do you shift the focus from Shakespeare’s most famous characters (or the man himself) to secondary players and make them as enjoyable as the show stars? Some would disagree, but I say Stoppard himself hadn’t even cracked it with his famous play Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead, concerning the minor players in Hamlet. Stage musicals have maybe fared best with examples like the riotous Something Rotten! and the upcoming & Juliet using music cues to work their way into Shakespeare’s famous storylines to success.
I’m interested in looking at what might tie in closest to 20th Century Studios’ and Hulu’s Rosaline, 1999’s 10 Things I Hate About You. An update of Taming of the Shrew, the hit film made stars out of Julia Stiles and newcomer Heath Ledger. More than just a reworking of the play, it brought other side characters from its updated high school setting to give the entire effort creative energy that similar attempted updates were missing. It’s interesting to note that Rosaline is based on Rebecca Serle’s 2012 YA novel ‘When You Were Mine’, also set in a modern-day West Coast high school. Taking its inspiration from the Romeo and Juliet story, it is told from the point of view of Rosaline, the girl Romeo is in love with and hopes to see again at the ball where he winds up meeting Juliet.
That’s an excellent place to jump into our film, finding Rosaline (Dever, Dear Evan Hansen) anxiously awaiting her Romeo, played by Kyle Allen (West Side Story), boasting shoulder-length hair, making him look a lot like Ledger. Ascending her balcony and delivering lines now known worldwide, they come off as a little flowery to her. She likes Romeo but does she “like” like him? It’s tough to tell. While she asks her best pal Paris (Spencer Stevenson) for his advice, he’s more interested in trying on her newly arrived hats than listening to her boy trouble. Her Nurse (Minnie Driver, Cinderella) isn’t a big help either, resigned to her place as a highly educated woman at a time when only men were regarded for their knowledge.
With her father (Bradley Whitford, Saving Mr. Banks) declaring it’s time for her to marry (in a sequence that gave me déjà vu to last week’s Catherine Called Birdy), Rosaline narrowly avoids a boring suitor. She does, however, wind up stuck on an afternoon outing with a handsome candidate (Sean Teale) and missing an important ball. Romeo won’t return her letters when she makes it back, and her just-arrived Cousin Juliet (Isabella Merced, Sicario: Day of the Soldado) is gushing about a new boy she met at the soirée. Adding up the equation, Rosaline realizes what’s occurred and sets out (with the occasional help of her would-be hunky swain) to break up the star-crossed couple before they kill themselves and really mess things up for her.
Surprisingly, like most of the cast, Dever struggles to find her footing in the role. I’m not sure if playing this kind of character is in her wheelhouse. Rosaline is never intentionally cruel. Instead, she’s a goal-oriented person with no game plan. She loves Romeo only because she can’t have him, even when the new man standing in front of her offers her the type of adventurous life she seeks. When Dever gets there, the role (and movie) gets more fun, primarily thanks to Teale’s pleasant personality and leading man charisma. It seems to be de rigueur to make the more well-known characters either icy cold or drips, and the pair of famous lovers seem to be a mixture of both. Or perhaps it’s just that Merced and Allen don’t generate much heat (or are given much screen time together by director Karen Maine) to make it believable. The nice surprises are, funnily enough, the supporting players. Nico Hiraga (Moxie) as a blissed-out messenger, is a scream, Stevenson is extra fun as Rosaline’s friend and gossipmonger, and Driver is on a winning streak playing wry sounding boards that make tough love their best medicine.
It was odd to find out that the adaptation by Scott Neustadter (The Fault in Our Stars) and Michael H. Weber (The Spectacular Now) had moved the setting from modern-day California back to the plays original Verona timeline. Now Serle’s entire concept, retelling the R+J story through a modern lens from a different perspective, was lost, and the film becomes a fluff piece that’s enjoyable to sit through but largely unimportant. You can feel the actors straining to make more of what’s there, but alas, there’s not a lot to do with a play working from a pre-destined beginning and ending, so audiences familiar with the play can sit back and wait for each beat to hit along the way. While it has a few surprises so as not to be as big of a bummer as the Bard wanted it to be, I’m not sure if Rosaline’s writers have fixed anything in their slight tweaking of a few plot points.
Not forgettable enough to be labeled mediocre but not so memorable that you’d want to make a special point of catching this because it looked interesting; I would say Rosaline is more for the YA crowd that doesn’t hold the book (and definitely not the play) on a precious pedestal. The screenwriters have altered so much that it’s unusually unrecognizable, and the cast never seems as confident in the material as they should be. That uneasiness shows and brings the film down to a disappointingly flat level.