As far as incongruous, anachronistic, and silly reinterpretations of William Shakespeare’s iconic Romeo and Juliet go, Rosaline is decent. A significant chunk is carried by lead actress charisma alone. There is a funny juxtaposition in seeing characters from Shakespeare’s play starting with the flowery language of the Bard and then changing to modern slang. There’s also a couple of great moments where it affectionately pokes holes in the narrative of Romeo and Juliet. Ultimately, Rosaline is modern teen angst comedy romance in corsets with mugging by young and older actors alike that is energetic and zippy.
Rosaline (Kaitlyn Dever) is in love with Romeo (Kyle Allen), and while he makes speeches about their future together, Rosaline’s future is being shaped by her father, Adrian (Bradley Whitford). Her dad wants to marry Rosaline off as soon as possible, setting her up on a series of blind dates with elderly men who gross her out. Even when he finds a suitor closer to her age, Dario (Sean Teale), Rosaline wants to immediately bail and meet with Romeo. Surprisingly, when she finds Romeo, he is professing his love for a girl he just met at a costume ball, Juliet (Isabela Merced), who is Rosaline’s cousin. Taking it personally, she conspires to teach her cousin about the ways of the world while trying to drive them apart. Rosaline’s confidant Janet the Nurse (Minnie Driver) is concerned about all of Rosaline’s late-night comings as Rosaline’s machinations may inadvertently ensure that Romeo and Juliet end up together.
Dever carries the film as she’s in every scene freaking out about winning back her Romeo. There’s a funny initial surprise in the opening scene when Romeo waxes in Shakespearean and Rosaline cuts him off with “What are you doing?”. From then on, all pretense of Shakespearean authenticity is dropped as they basically chat like modern folk. It’s a decent gag that makes the Victorian setting incongruous with the dialogue, even including modern song needle drops. This isn’t exactly a new notion in Shakespeare adaptations as 1996’s Romeo + Juliet famously made the setting modern but kept the dialogue. This is the reverse.
When the story of Romeo and Juliet is stripped of its fancy dialogue the incredibly dumb plan of the main characters stands out. One of the movie’s best tweaks is when Juliet says she is going to take a potion to fake her own death, Rosaline bluntly states that is “the stupidest %%$%ing idea I have ever heard in my life.” Dever nails the sarcasm in that line delivery, something she does often throughout. She also has some great reactions, like when she is told bad news, so she petulantly flops onto the bed flapping her arms in useless frustration.
There are a few smart revisions to the Romeo and Juliet story in here. Their fake suicide plan gets revised, which makes this an alternative version of the story. A very famous Shakespearean revising play is Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead which shows what was happening on the sidelines of Hamlet, Rosaline does the same although this makes more changes to the text. There’s a moment in Rosaline that shows what Romeo and Juliet’s life would be like if it didn’t end in tragedy and it’s gleefully awkward. Allen and Merced as the main couple are amusingly vapid blank slates, basically showing all the trouble everyone went through for them wasn’t worth it. Rosaline is frustrated that Romeo has ghosted her for her cousin and it does make her seem somewhat petty, but Dever makes Rosaline entertaining, so it gets a pass.
Teale as Dario is a new character invented for the story to be someone Rosaline confides in about her scheme. They have a funny first date scene when Dario takes her out on his boat and they get stuck on the water when the storm hits. Rosaline jumps for the oars but isn’t going anywhere and her frustration with Dario only grows. It is kind of a cheat that the movie ends on them being romantically attached when throughout the whole movie she is just irritated by him. The adults who Rosaline chats with are played by more established actors and have some solid bits. Driver as the Nurse has amusingly world-weary moments, like how she says she went to seven years of nursing school and now delivers Rosaline her morning tea. And when nobody can remember her name she shouts, extremely frustrated, that it’s Janet. As the father, Whitford mostly just wants to marry her off, but he gets in some small moments of compassion towards his daughter near the end. There’s also Rosaline’s best buddy, Paris (Spencer Stevenson), who is gay, but Rosaline convinces him to try to marry Juliet so she can win back Romeo, and he is constantly stammering and stalling the commitment. Also, there’s the dumb, probably stoned courier Steve (Nico Hiraga), who is good for some laughs as he’s perpetually lost in a haze.
There have been numerous reinterpretations of Shakespeare and Rosaline isn’t exactly unique in that regard. Still, its “Shakespeare but modern talk” central conceit is fun, and the lead actress adds lots of energy. It’s breezy, not exactly deep, but enjoyable.
Director: Karen Maine
Starring: Kaitlyn Dever, Isabela Merced, Kyle Allen, Sean Teale, Christopher McDonald, Minnie Driver and Bradley Whitford