Sunday, July 3, 2011

The Bard goes bananas in Eve Annenberg's mash-up, ROMEO & JULIET (IN YIDDISH)

Taking one of the great melodramas of all time, Romeo and Juliet -- the poetry of which lifts it into tragedy -- setting it in modern-day Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and then peopling it with a very odd assortment of characters and stories-within-stories might sound like a dicey proposition. Doing the tale in Yiddish adds yet another weird layer. The icing on the kugel is provided by having the writer/director/co-producer Eve Annenberg play lead actress in the film (no, not Juliet -- but Ms Annenberg still gets the major role here). The result is one of the strangest concoctions TrustMovies has seen in some time. And as you surely know by now, he has given himself over to some pretty strange concoctions in his day.

Ms Annenberg, shown at left. makes a funny, spicy, energetic and on-target actress (in her role of an ER nurse named Ava, who, for some not-very-believable reason, decides to create ROMEO AND JULIET (IN YIDDISH) -- with lots of help from friends and the nearby Hasidic community. While I found it a pleasure to watch Annenberg's  acting work, as for her writing and directing, I'm flummoxed. What the hell did this woman think she was doing and why would she even want to do it if she couldn't manage it any better than this? A hodge-podge of ideas and moments, characters and languages, with headache-producing, hand-held camerawork and sets, cast and costumes that are occasionally charming but more often risible, the movie barely comes together. When it does, this is thanks of course to the Bard, who in every way managed things more rigorously, beautifully, and entertainingly.

Well, modern artists are forever updating and redoing Shakespeare, so consider this just another attempt. And one that does occasionally work. Romeo in peyes is no sillier than Romeo in tights, and having Mercutio doing his Queen Mab speech as rap is one nice touch.  But stealing the fairy dust bit from A Midsummer Night's Dream isn't really germane to Romeo & Juliet -- not to mention that it's handled in a manner more reminiscent of Tinker Bell than of Queen Mab.

The Friar Laurence (in this case, Rabbi Laurence) scene works nicely, too, as do the occasional flashes of the play's original dialog. You can't beat William S. for gorgeous images (even when these are translated into Yiddish and then subtitled back into English), but after awhile, the film seems like too many layers of whimsy atop one thin layer of Shakespeare.

The various characters, who double as themselves and as those in the Shakespeare play, are so cursorily presented that we care little about them in either of their roles. And anything the film manages to bring up about culture, family or love, seems so paltry as to be unnecessary. At best you might call this movie cute, short and completely forgettable. At worst it'll have you rolling your eyes and murmuring "Get on with it!"

Romeo & Juliet (in Yiddish) opens this coming Friday, July 8, in New York at the new Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center at Lincoln Center.

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