Rosaline Review: A Revisionist Romeo And Juliet Retelling That Could've Used More Revising

Hollywood sure does love a feminist revisionist retelling. It's an easy sell: take a much-adapted story and give it a contemporary, self-aware spin — maybe with a post-post feminist heroine and a topical message thrown in. The only problem is that few are really successful at this gambit, with most leaning too hard on the novelty of seeing corset-clad women and chainmail-wearing men spout trendy slang. Unfortunately, "Rosaline," the comedic twist on Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet," but told from the perspective of Romeo's spurned former lover as she desperately tries to win him back, falls in the latter category.

Directed by Karen Maine, "Rosaline" is the unfortunate result of when two men ("500 Days of Summer" scribes Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber) attempt to write a feminist retelling. The romantic comedy is painfully self-aware but rarely clever, instead falling back on rom-com tropes that were creaky back in the modern Shakespeare adaptation heyday of the '90s.

The saving grace of "Rosaline" is the heroine herself, Kaitlyn Dever, a rising star whose natural charisma and knack for physical comedy is on grand display here, even as she trudges through the recycled gimmicks. But without anyone on her level to bounce off of — with perhaps the exception of Isabela Merced's beatific Juliet, along with the sorely underused Minnie Driver and Bradley Whitford — Dever is left on her own to drown in a sea of broad comedy and unfunny quips.

Would iambic pentameter smell as sweet?

Rosaline has always been a mysterious figure, even to Shakespeare scholars. An unseen character in Shakespeare's original play, she is purely the object of Romeo's unrequited affection before he sets eyes on Juliet and ... well, you know the story. It's only in recent film adaptations that she's started to become more visible, which sets the stage for the perfect elevator pitch for Hollywood's latest attempt to girl boss-ify Shakespeare (which, let's face it, was already perfectly done in "10 Things I Hate About You"): what if "Romeo and Juliet," but told by his bitter ex?!

"Rosaline" opens with a familiar scene: a balcony, Romeo reciting poetry that compares the beautiful woman before him to the night sky, before the film comes to a screeching halt when the enamored Rosaline asks, "Why are you talking like that?" The two immediately revert to 21st-century vernacular, Romeo stuttering out an apology before falling down the garden wall. This is 2022, kids: Romeo (Kyle Allen, whose whole appeal seems to be that he looks like a young Heath Ledger) is a himbo and a bit of a player, and Rosaline is an erotica-reading lady who is the love of his life. Until circumstances prevent her from attending a masquerade where Romeo meets Juliet, and he promptly stops answering Rosaline's texts — ahem — her letters. It's the kind of deeply cynical, self-aware storytelling popularized by Marvel movies and CinemaSins, the hard break from verse just one step away from a record scratch/freeze frame, "yup that's me" situation. And it's what makes "Rosaline" immediately feel like a movie made by buzzwords rather than a genuine interest in subverting Shakespeare.

At the very least, "Rosaline" doesn't try to be a beat-for-beat retelling of "Romeo and Juliet," instead engaging in a more "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead"-style approach, focusing on Rosaline's antics as she tries to keep up with (and sabotage) the star-crossed lovers. But the problem is that Neustadter and Weber are not skilled enough to create a compelling storyline for our heroine that doesn't resort to tropes that are more tired than, well, "Romeo and Juliet" adaptations. Enemies to lovers? We got 'em! A "Cyrano"-inspired scene of characters feeding lines to say to a love interest? It's there! A gay best friend whose face seems to be permanently stuck in duck face? Sure! And most curiously, a courier named Steve (Nico Haraga) who is played just like a modern stoner? You betcha. The only really funny invention is Rosaline's absurd fear of fish, which hits just the right note of satire — and comes back for several recurring beats — that makes you wish the rest of the film embraced that kind of irreverence, instead of plot points and "feminist" character arcs that feel like they were focus-grouped by executives.

Wherefore art thou, Rosaline?

For a movie that's supposedly about the feminist reassessment of Rosaline, there's sadly not much to her beyond the charms that Dever manages to imbue in the character. Rosaline is thrown from hijink to hijink, stewing in her betrayal by Romeo while scheming to get him back. She manipulates her cousin Juliet into a friendship, is constantly at odds with the dashing Dario (Sean Teale, rakish and CW brooding), gets her best friend involved in her machinations (Spencer Stevenson's admittedly game Paris), and engages in Scooby-Doo chases throughout the villas and forests of Verona that curiously switch from day to night at the drop of a hat.

The direction by Maine, whose previous films "Obvious Child" and "Yes, God, Yes" show she has a real knack for capturing female angst in a funny and thoughtful way, is oddly lax at times, especially during these long treks that Rosaline takes to chase Romeo, which have genuinely baffling night-and-day continuity (one scene where Rosaline starts following Romeo to Juliet's mansion begins at midday and ends at the dead of night). While the costumes and production design look handsome, Maine's direction veers into cartoonish at times — though if "Rosaline" were truly a satire, maybe not cartoonish enough.

It's a shame because Dever would absolutely kill in a satire. The comedy chops she showed in "Booksmart" are only accentuated when she takes the lead role in "Rosaline," and her screwball performance feels like it could sing in a better movie. Maybe in the next Shakespeare retelling.

/Film Rating: 4 out of 10