There are instances in director Carey Williams’ boldly experimental yet wearisome “R#J” that genuinely grasp the essence of romance, identity and existence in the age of social media. Those fleeting but relatable moments feel like major triumphs in Williams’ Gen Z-centric adaptation of “Romeo and Juliet,” a movie that unfolds almost entirely on electronic screens. And you get a taste of them enough times to wish for a film that achieves a similar level of insight on the whole, something with purpose that went beyond the contrived quest, “What if we do Shakespeare, but solely in the virtual world?”
It’s not that the work of the Bard is necessarily sacrosanct or untouchable. Every era has a right to process his timeless texts from its own point of view, either in original form or through the fresh perspectives of present-day artists. It is, after all, exactly that license that yielded Baz Luhrmann’s remarkably energetic “Romeo + Juliet” aimed at the MTV generation more than two decades ago. In that regard, the trouble with the film isn’t necessarily only about its commitment to boxed-up screens. Ever since the success of Leo Gabriadze’s frightening and skillful 2014 horror “Unfriended,” movies that are set on computers and mobile devices, like Aneesh Chaganty’s inventive 2018 thriller “Searching,” were destined to grow in popularity, along with the Screenlife technology that brought them to life on a budget.
But something sets “R#J” apart from “Unfriended,” whose story of a group of teenagers’ online hangout lent itself to a digital approach, as well as from “Searching,” a film that at least tried to invent, at times unsuccessfully, plot-based justifications to confine its setting to laptops and other screens. And yet, “R#J” seldom concerns itself with similar narrative rationalizations. So when enmity-based fights erupt between the members of the rivaling Capulet and Montague houses with ancient scores to settle, don’t dare to ask why you have to watch them as Live Instagram videos with real-time reactions that prove impossible to keep up with. That’s just the way “R#J” is set up, and you are expected to accept it.
But once (or if) you do, “R#J” has some perceptiveness in store as imagined by co-writers Rickie Castaneda, Oleksii Sobolev and Williams himself. Vivid, fast-moving and overwhelmingly busy, there is something recognizable about the experience of watching this film, which pretty much simulates the restlessness of living with our phones and digital identities as one. You will get a taste of all those hours spent toggling between text messages, Facetime calls and Instagram DMs, yearning to stay on top of the online discourse fired off on Twitter or live video streams, racing to score them to a Spotify playlist, feeling the emotional chaos of always starting but never quite finishing something. The inherent disarray of “R#J” comprehends this utter madness and intensifies it with old-school Shakespearean dialogue.
While humorous at times, the mind-numbing fusion of all these elements proves just about as pleasant as it sounds. In that regard, even the most eagle-eyed and engaged viewers might run out of patience with “R#J.” Thankfully, Williams’ magnificent cast counters the disorder with their confident screen presence and theatrical muscles that stand out within the film’s unique atmosphere.
The diverse and immensely talented ensemble is led by the affable Camaron Engels and angelic Francesca Noel, playing the star-crossed lovers Romeo and Juliet. The saga plays out largely as you recall: He is a wide-eyed Montague, she is a Capulet whose original art he discovers and falls in love with online. After lengthy and heartfelt text exchanges, endearing smartphone-based courting and an IRL party attended by both, the duo discovers that their innocent romance and eventual secret wedding is destined to be doomed by their perennially feuding families in Verona.
Romeo’s close friend Mercutio, portrayed here by Siddiq Saunderson in a sensationally magnetic performance, Russell Hornsby’s authoritative Captain Prince and Diego Tinoco’s firebrand Tybalt who kills Merc in a ruthless duel, are also in the mix. All these characters purposely match Shakespeare’s to some degree. Except, they come with a Criterion Channel app on their phones.
True to his modern-day intentions, Williams embellishes the familiar yarn with instances of police brutality, cyber bullying and unsubtle commentary on the virtual spread of fake news, reimagining the tale’s ending with a questionable yet debate-worthy 21st-century twist. Still, these contemporary endeavors don’t add up to much that’s groundbreaking, even when accentuated by a radical pace, eclectic soundtrack and Desi Aguilar’s eye-popping costumes, which marry a ‘90s-grunge sensibility with a tailored, kaleidoscopic edge.
Williams proves more incisive when his cacophonous canvas represents the ways in which we compose ourselves in the digital world, forging first impressions, forming insecurities, exposing vulnerabilities and initiating relationships with strangers we feel we know. In the aftermath, you do wonder what “R#J” would have been like as a flesh-and-blood movie that organically integrated the virtual dimension into its DNA. What we get sadly feels closer to a half-realized concept stifled by its own gimmick.