Towards the end of Rosaline, the titular hero (Kaitlyn Dever) asks her new boyfriend Dario (Sean Teale) if, when this story is told centuries from now, whether their names will be even mentioned. ‘Honestly, I couldn’t care less’ replies Dario. It’s indicative of some of the tonal and thematic confusion of Rosaline that it’s the guy who gets the concluding moral, with which Rosaline somewhat flatly agrees ‘Me neither’. For all that Rosaline so very desperately wants to be a ball-busting, feminist, anti-canonical riposte to Romeo and Juliet, it weirdly disempowers and conventionalizes its own central figure, who goes from trying to disrupt the known story of Romeo and Juliet to being the person who props it up, and along the way ends up in a place where she finishes by politely agreeing with the pretty man who defines her own happy ending. Reminiscent in some ways of 10 Things I Hate About You, this throwback 90s-style teen comedy never really makes a case for why it would want to be remembered.
The plot is actually closer to another classic teen Shakespeare, Get Over It. As in that film, the lead is trying to get back together with their ex after being unceremoniously dumped; as in that film, the lead’s stealth break-up mission ends up being replaced with the realization that the person they’re spending their time with is actually The One. Here, Rosaline is the subject of Romeo’s (Kyle Allen) night-time balcony poetry recitals. But she’s also in the process of being married off by her father, and during one boat-based date with latest suitor Dario, she misses a masked ball, during which Romeo meets her younger cousin Juliet (Isabela Merced) and falls in love, leaving Rosaline watching another woman be the recipient of the same flourishing verses.
The premise is a lot of fun; the actual film isn’t. The three primary comic strategies all get tired very quickly: Dever’s Rosaline sneering at the plot machinations of Romeo and Juliet (‘that’s the dumbest fucking thing I’ve heard in my life’ to Juliet when Juliet explains her plan to take a potion); Dever getting wet or pratfalling; and some hackneyed stereotypes (Paris (Spencer Stevenson) as gay best friend! Messenger Steve (Nico Hiraga) as an unreliable stoner!). The real problem is that, while Dever certainly has energy, her entire personality is rooted in her peripherality. She wants to be a cartographer, which would have been a fun thing to actually build more of the plot around rather than being a superfluous detail; but otherwise, she’s predominantly defined by her sassy attitude towards everyone and her attempts to not get on with her life. Given that her primary mode of defiance is rejecting arranged marriage (which might have made this a more interesting film if set within a culture with more parental pressure on marriage) in favour of hanging out with a boyfriend she seems largely indifferent to, her life feels like it’s wheel-spinning anyway, and the film defers to a thinly sketched romance with Dario to actually give her something she seems to meaningfully want.
This is also no Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, in that the film doesn’t pursue the interesting constraint of keeping the plot of Romeo and Juliet itself intact. Romeo and Juliet court for a while, but Rosaline’s plan involves pretending to mentor her cousin while telling her that Romeo has wooed lots of girls and taking her out to bars to meet other men, all while writing to Romeo herself to try and win him back. Romeo and Juliet’s own story is conventionalized in order to fit Rosaline’s own conventionality: Romeo and Juliet are tense with one another, then get back together and get married. When Romeo kills Tybalt in the street – after Tybalt intercepts a letter from Rosaline to Juliet telling all and attacks him – Juliet publicly declares her love for Romeo in the street, and the two are pulled apart by their fathers. The effect of all this is to massively shift the stakes of the Montague-Capulet conflict, which is allowed to continue even after the fathers discover that Romeo and Juliet are married, which then results in their (feigned) deaths – at which point, it is the mothers who snap into life and tell their husbands that they are stubborn fools. The death of Tybalt and the grief of the households gets remarkably short shrift, and the comic treatment of the grave scene – during which Juliet wakes up, and then feigns getting poisoned by Romeo’s lips to die again in front of her family – is extremely anti-climactic.
The anti-climax seems in keeping with the film’s detached irony throughout. Some of the best jokes feature Paris, who at least seems to know what kind of film he’s actually in, as he follows Rosaline’s wish to put himself forward to marry Juliet in order to get Rosaline’s rival off the table. Minnie Driver as Rosaline’s Nurse is also fun and snarky, and indeed the only person who really seems to call out Rosaline’s bullshit. But for the most part, as Rosaline strives against narrative inevitability (which would be even more compelling if the narrative of Romeo and Juliet had been retained more closely), her actions seem pointless – and that’s not an especially compelling arc for a heroine. Teale, meanwhile, gets to be pretty and sensitive and to stand up for himself as Dario, but his role here is precisely to have no character. Perhaps what’s most frustrating here is that this should be a really fun film, but – unlike Berke in Get Over It – Rosaline herself seems pretty half-hearted about the mission she has set herself, and coupled with the film’s undertone of ‘Ugh, Shakespeare, why should I care?’, the film gives surprisingly little for its audience to care about.
If nothing else, Rosaline is at least funny in its send-ups of romantic convention, from Rosaline (and later Juliet) getting bored of Romeo’s self-impressed delivery of his poetry, to Rosaline introducing Juliet to porn, to Romeo and Juliet getting a nice mid-credit scene stranded on a boat together and trying to get to know one another, only to find they have almost nothing in common and are actively repulsed by each other’s food preferences. But in de-romanticizing the romance, holding back on the comedy, and ironizing everything, the end result is, indeed, something that no-one would particularly think to care to remember.