Television Review: “Rosaline” — Burlesquing the Bard’s “Star-Cross’d Lovers”

By Sarah Osman

Every few years a smart teen rom-com comes along that deftly puts a modern, and pleasingly iconoclastic, spin on a classic piece of literature.

Rosaline, directed by Karen Maine. Streaming on Hulu.

From left: Spencer Stevenson, Kaitlyn Dever, Kyle Allen, and Henry Hunter Hall in Rosaline. Photo: Moris Puccio/20th Century Studios/Hulu

I have never been a fan of Romeo & Juliet. Its most forceful character, Mercutio, dies a little past halfway through the action. Without him, the proceedings, for me, turn into a snoozefest that is more melodramatic than it is romantic. Once I taught the celebrated Shakespearean text (against my will). My high school students didn’t find this legendary yarn about fated loves all that amorous or tragic. In fact, they questioned the lovers’ sanity and wrote them off as annoying, horny teenagers.

For those who are also resistant to the spell cast by Romeo & Juliet, Hulu’s latest rom-com, Rosaline, will be a delight. Based on the novel When You Were Mine by Rebecca Serle, the revisionist narrative skewers all of the familiar tropes of the Shakespearean tragedy. The film follows the trials and tribulations of Rosaline (Kaitlyn Dever), here envisioned as a feisty young lady who, as in the text, is Romeo’s first love. She doesn’t behave like an Elizabethan/Italian proper lady: she constantly butts heads with her resigned father (Bradley Whitford), desires to see the world, and fights off the attentions of wanna-be older suitors by pretending she has an unruly invisible friend. Rosaline has been hooking up with Romeo (Kyle Allen, who plays him as a moronic playboy), whom she desperately wants to run away with. Romeo’s insipid patter here is far from poetic, symptomatic of an immaturity that also drives his over-the-top declarations of love in the play. This Romeo is utterly clueless, a not-so-subtle nod to the notion that he was the Bard’s idea of an annoying, horny teenager.

Among the people who know about Rosaline’s dalliance is her nurse (Minnie Driver), who frequently reminds everyone that she trained to be an actual nurse but got stuck with this gig. (It is one of the film’s best running gags). The young woman’s gay BFF, Paris (Spencer Stevenson), is in on tryst as well. Driver and Stevenson land every tongue-in-cheek line they are handed. It is regrettable that Paris’s only role in the plot is as the gay BFF. But Stevenson refuses to be relegated to the background, and ends up dominating every scene he’s in.

As in the play, Romeo meets Juliet (Isabela Merced) at a masquerade and they fall in love at first sight. Rosaline misses the party because she is on an obligatory first date with the dashing Dario (Sean Teale). A despondent Rosaline does her best to break up the young couple. She takes Juliet out to flirt with chums at the local pub and then ‘advises’ her on exactly what to say to Romeo. In this way, Rosaline follows familiar rom-com beats, but they override cliche given that the script is poking fun at what many consider to be “literature’s greatest love story.” Merced plays Juliet with pitch perfect wide-eyed innocence, while Dever endows Rosaline with the right amount of cynicism, a savvy perspective reinforced by the script. Here, Rosaline and Dario are the ones with genuine erotic chemistry to spare. Romeo and Juliet are wet blankets flapping in the breeze — “love at first sight” is mocked as infatuation on steroids.

Dever supplies a tour de force performance. She first proved her comedic chops in Booksmart and she brings that know-how to Rosaline. She gives us a sympathetic and endearing heroine who is worth rooting for. Dever is very much the protagonist, but the other actors hold their own against her (especially Teale). The cast’s high spirits suggest that everyone involved enjoyed satirizing Shakespeare tragedy. It is fun to herd sacred cows over the cliff. The truth is, not all the satiric bits land, but enough do: highlights include Paris’s hesitation regarding his engagement to Juliet and a hilarious post credits scene. The lampooning is good natured enough to charm even the most diehard Shakespeare fan, the kind that takes Romeo & Juliet seriously. Did the Bard? I am not so sure — after all, this is a playwright who wrote “Men have died from time to time, and worms have eaten them, but not for love.”

I have not read When You Were Mine, so I am not sure if Mercutio makes an appearance. Fans of the swashbuckling character will yearn for his uncontrollable energy as well as his sassy one-liners, crude humor, and flights of lyricism. I would have loved to see Mercutio go up against this fiery Rosaline. On the one hand, I get why he was not included: this is Rosaline’s story, not Romeo’s. Still, excluding Mercutio feels like a real missed opportunity. Why not bring in one of the Bard’s most subversive adolescents to put the kibosh on the pretensions of the play he is killed (too soon) in?

I have no desire to teach Romeo & Juliet again. However, if I am forced to, I think that my students would enjoy watching Rosaline. Every few years a smart teen rom-com comes along that deftly puts a modern, and pleasingly iconoclastic, spin on a classic piece of literature. Rosaline does that for one of Shakespeare’s most popular tragedies. Yet, I can dream, like Queen Mab, and hope for the coming of a zesty Mercutio.

Sarah Mina Osman is a writer residing in Wilmington, NC. In addition to writing for the Arts Fuse, she has written for Watercooler HQ, Huffington Post, HelloGiggles, Young Hollywood, and Matador Network, among other sites. Her work was included in the anthology Fury: Women’s Lived Experiences in the Trump Era. She is currently a first year fiction MFA candidate at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. When she’s not writing, she’s dancing, watching movies, traveling, or eating. She has a deep appreciation for sloths and tacos. You can keep up with her on Twitter and Instagram: @SarahMinaOsman

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