Reviewed by: Jeremy Mathews

"It’s hard to say which is worse: the plot additions that amount to self-parody or the stilted pacing." | Photo: Charles Murphy

I’ve long been of the opinion that William Shakespeare’s work is for everyone. Whether interpreted as a community theatre production, an experimental indie film or a prestige period Oscar contender, there’s always room to bring out new details and find new experiences within the text. But R#J is a bummer of a reminder that without the proper effort and engagement from the filmmakers, even a promising concept can end up feeling lazy, cynical and clunky.

Director Carey Williams’s movie is meant to be Romeo And Juliet for the age of Instagram and video chat. Like the 2018 thriller Searching, R#J takes place in the world of phone and computer screens. We see conversations in FaceTime calls or livestreams while gaining more information through Instagram posts and searches.

Camaron Engels and Francesca Noel are fine in the title roles, but Siddiq Saunderson delivers the standout performance as Mercutio. He nails the Queen Man speech with flare and energy while his character applies elaborate makeup for the Capulet masquerade and conference-calling Romeo to convince him to come along. Of course, Romeo does join him to crash the Capulet party, and sees some art signed “#J” that inspires a web search that leads to a forbidden crush.

The online-media conceit isn’t inherently terrible. Stage and screen directors have always found new ways to examine and interpret Shakespeare’s work. And considering that the bard’s dialogue naturally contains anachronisms when placed in contemporary times, this format allows additional details to be explained outside of the original text. There is even some extra opportunity for comedy, like hecklers commenting on livestream footage.

The execution, however, is cringeworthy and clunky. It’s hard to say which is worse: the plot additions that amount to self-parody or the stilted pacing. One new plotline involves Juliet discovering the history of her uncle, Steven Capulet, who wronged the the Montagues in a drunk-driving incident that was then covered up. These plot points aren’t merely silly, they also undermine the whole point of the story. Creating a scandal that started the feud — and in the process fully assigning blame to a specific party — diminishes the depth by more clearly delineating good guys and bad guys.

And from a sheer entertainment standpoint, the text-based exposition brings the story to a halt. Just when the excitement of the romance starts to gain traction, we have to slog through endless searching scrolling, texting and waiting for replies. The movie also conveniently shifts from showing both characters’ phones to only one, in a narrative cheat used to set up one of the most laughable twists I’ve ever seen.

Considering all that, it’s no wonder that even the title doesn’t work. As mentioned, Juliet signs her art “#J” — which seems like an extremely ineffective hashtag. I mean, you probably need at least one more character to make that searchable. Also, # as a symbol doesn’t mean “and,” and the symbol has no conjoining functions, so… oh never mind. Like everything else in this movie, it doesn’t deserve that much thought.

Reviewed on: 21 Mar 2021
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A re-imagining of Romeo and Juliet, taking place through their cell phones, in a mash-up of Shakespearean dialogue with current social media communication.

Director: Carey Williams

Writer: Carey Williams, Rickie Castaneda, Alex Sobolev

Starring: Camaron Engels, Francesca Noel, David Zayas, Diego Tinoco, Siddiq Saunderson, Russell Hornsby

Year: 2021

Runtime: 91 minutes

Country: US

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