Producers: Shawn Levy and Dan Cohen Director: Karen Maine Screenplay: Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber Cast: Kaitlyn Dever, Isabela Merced, Sean Teale, Kyle Allen, Bradley Whitford, Minnie Driver, Spencer Stevenson, Christopher McDonald, Nicholas Rowe, Nico Hiraga, Alistair Toovey, Alhaji Fofana and Lew Temple Distributor: Hulu
The zig-zags, chronological and geographical, involved in “When You Were Mine,” Rebecca Serle’s 2012 YA riff on “Romeo and Juliet,” and its film adaptation are enough to cause whiplash. Serle moved her different-perspective slant on Shakespeare from fourteenth-century Verona to twenty-first century California, and now Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber have moved it back, while keeping the modern sensibility. But the now-retitled “Rosaline” merely proves that neither the novelist nor the screenwriters are a patch on Tom Stoppard, who pulled off a similar take on “Hamlet” in “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” with an intelligence this dopey picture utterly lacks.
In “Romeo and Juliet” Rosaline is never seen, but is an important character nonetheless—the niece of Lord Capulet with whom Romeo is initially besotted. It’s the hope of encountering her that leads Romeo to crash the Capulet ball where he first sees Juliet.
In Shakespeare, however, Rosaline has “forsworn to love.” Here, as played by Kaitlyn Dever, she’s a shrewd, independent-minded girl secretly cavorting with bumbling Romeo (Kyle Allen), though when he expresses his love for her, she declines to reciprocate—or to seriously consider any of the candidates for matrimony her exasperated father (Bradley Whitford) is proposing.
In fact it’s an ill-fated boat ride with the latest candidate, a handsome but impecunious soldier named Dario (Sean Teale), which prevents Rosaline from attending the ball. When she finds out that Romeo has abruptly switched his affections to her ingénue cousin Juliet (Isabela Merced), daughter of Lord Capulet (Christopher McDonald), whom he met at the party, she’s furious, and aims to sabotage their relationship.
So the screenplay moves along on two tracks. One is centered on Rosaline’s attempts to “instruct” the supposedly unsophisticated Juliet in the feminine arts, with the real purpose being to sidetrack her romance with Romeo. It doesn’t work, because though young, Juliet is smart and likable—so much that Rosaline eventually changes her mind and promotes the very relationship she was trying to subvert, helping the two kids work their way through the convolutions of Shakespeare’s last act and sail to Cyprus alive and well, even if a coda suggests that their future together might not be entirely idyllic.
Rosaline’s change of heart is connected to the script’s second track—her growing attraction to Dario, as strong a personality as she is. There’s more than a touch of “The Taming of the Shrew” at work here, though this modern version of Kate doesn’t capitulate to the obviously right man so completely—she is a modern, liberated sort after all. In fact, as the film progresses, the story of Rosaline and Dario dominates that of Romeo and Juliet. The movie’s entered “10 Things I Hate About You” territory.
Neustadter and Weber use secondary characters to add to the jokily contemporary feel, despite the cheesy period trappings of Andrew McAlpine’s production design and Mitchell Travers’ costumes (though they’re colorfully rendered in Laurie Rose’s cinematography). Paris (Spencer Stevenson) is transformed into a gay best friend, and Rosaline’s harried nurse (Minnie Driver) repeatedly confirms her competence in medical matters by insisting that she’s “registered.” But the worst offense in that regard is a guy called Steve the Courier (Nico Hiraga), an inept slacker type who always messes up his message deliveries. His multiple appearances drag the movie into the comedic dregs, not to mention that they’re slackly paced and terribly unfunny—the most painful evidence that Karen Maine’s direction isn’t very rigorous, a trait that didn’t much matter in her previous films, “Obvious Child” and “Yes, God, Yes,” but is here a distinct impediment. So is the overly cute score credited jointly to Ian Hultquist and Drum & Lace.
Among the cast Merced makes a lovely Juliet and Allen a goofily slapstick Romeo. But they play second fiddle to Dever and Teale. The former gets the intensity of Rosaline, although in the early going she’s rather strident, with the “man girl” attitude sometimes slipping into something very like obnoxiousness. But Teale’s combination of swagger and sensitivity is just about perfect. The supporting cast is generally fine—though Alistair Toovey’s Tybalt is as over-the-top irritating as Hiraga’s message-carrier. One’s spirits rise every time Driver shows up with some brittle remark, but Whitford can do little but shrug and sigh as Rosaline’s put-upon dad.
One might point out that for a movie directed at a younger audience, “Rosaline” contains some awfully rough language parents might object to—presumably the result of a decision to seek a PG-13 rating so as not to come across as kids’ stuff. But that doesn’t keep it from being a pretty puerile reworking of Shakespeare’s tale of star-crossed lovers.