I was immediately hooked by the promotional image for Disney+ and Hulu’s new period romcom: ‘Meet Romeo’s Ex’. Yes please.
Rosaline, released on 14 October, tells the story of Romeo’s first love (mentioned briefly in the 1594 play), the one he dumps as soon as he meets Juliet. Why does he drop her? ‘She will not stay the siege of loving terms,/ Nor bide th’encounter of assailing eyes,/Nor ope her lap to saint-seducing gold,’ Romeo whines to Benvolio in the first scene of the play.
In other words, she won’t put out. Romeo is a fickle bastard, for which Juliet calls him out later. Rosaline promises japes and a satisfying feminist take-down of the patriarchy. To my dismay, the film falls short of its own potential.
Director Karen Maine and screenwriters, Scott Neustadter and Michael H Weber, clearly enjoyed the idea of mixing modern American high school-speak with cod Shakespearean language (with a sprinkling of the real text). The premise has its moments—Romeo kneels on the balcony in front of Rosaline under the light of the moon and presents her with a necklace he’s engraved himself with their names. ‘I shall wear it always,’ Rosaline proclaims. ‘OK!’ replies Romeo. This was one of a small handful of hilarious contrasts between old and modern language— and there should have been more.
A whole film about Romeo’s jilted ex is a promising idea but as the comedy/revenge plot develops, the story becomes more about the saving of Romeo and Juliet and less about the title character. Since we all know what happens, notwithstanding a few tongue-in-cheek twists and turns, this is all very predictable—a run-of-the-mill modern romcom. The first time Rosaline says ‘Blow me!’, I laughed. But the novelty of people swearing while wearing heavy brocade and breeches isn’t enough to sustain a ninety-minute film, and the writers seem to run out of good ideas halfway through.
At least the cast are having fun. The two leads have no romantic chemistry but they do have banter. Kaitlyn Dever uses her naturally sarcastic face to good effect—but eye-rolling and exasperated sighs can only take you so far.
She’s also reacting to other goofy characters too often and not given enough of her own sharp dialogue. As Rosaline’s love interest Dario, Sean Teale has a goofy charm and easy confidence, but it’s never clear why or how he falls for Rosaline, who spends the whole film sniping at him while she chases another man. I’m not sure why they end up together either– they spend very little time in each other’s company. I suppose it is a romantic comedy so she has to end up with someone, but the journey to that predictable ending could have been a lot more fun.
Bradley Whitford is charming as Rosaline’s jaded father, but I think I only found him funny because he still looks like Josh from The West Wing. Other characters are inconsistent, notably Kyle Allen as Romeo. One minute he’s nailing a meat-head jock, and the next, it’s not at all clear what he’s doing. Isabela Merced’s Juliet is similarly hard to pin down, seeming to adapt to become whatever the script needs at the time. At first, she’s the archetypal innocent ingenue, a good contrast with Rosaline, then suddenly she becomes single-minded and resourceful, coming up with the elaborate and risky plan of faking her own death and fleeing Verona with Romeo.
The film’s tone changes as well. It should have stuck with the cynical feminist take-down of the tragic love story instead of dipping a toe in the feminist pond and then following the play’s plotline for the rest of the film. That’s the biggest problem—it sticks too close to the original story without bringing much charm or innovation of its own. We’ve been promised the story of Romeo’s ex but the plot still centres on Romeo and his new girlfriend.
For a character-driven film we learn very little about Rosaline herself, apart from the fact that she’s scared of fish. What is her character arch, her journey? What does she learn about herself? I guess she learns you don’t always get what you want, but maybe what you need. She ends up with a handsome guy (spoilers, it’s not Romeo) just not the one she wanted.
As far as subversive retellings go, Rosaline just isn’t in the same league as films like Clueless, the 1995 Beverly Hills high school comedy based on Jane Austen’s 1815 novel Emma. While watching Rosaline I found myself comparing it to other classic retellings like Clueless and wondering why it doesn’t measure up.
I think the setting is the key. Because the writers of Clueless were working in an entirely new setting and time period with only the bare bones of the novel’s storyline to work with, they had to craft a film that worked in its own right. You could watch Clueless (and I’m sure many have) and still be entirely clueless that it’s an homage to Jane Austen. And yet the film captures the essence of the comedy and characters. The story and characters are timeless—Emma is essentially a well-off, popular girl who learns humility and finds true love. Her story can be confidently transported to any time period, from Regency England to Beverly Hills.
The jilted ex who’s after revenge could easily be transported to the modern era too, but by choosing to keep the story in its historic setting, the writers were opting for the easy way out. If they’d have to write their own new script from scratch, they might have worked harder to bring a fresh and funny new angle to the most famous love story in history. Instead, Rosaline is mildly charming, with only a rare laugh-out-loud moment here and there. Worse, it was a bit boring and for such a promising premise, that is unforgivable.
Feature image credit: Disney+
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