Synopsis – Juliet, Naked is the story of Annie (the long-suffering girlfriend of Duncan) and her unlikely transatlantic romance with once revered, now faded, singer-songwriter, Tucker Crowe, who also happens to be the subject of Duncan’s musical obsession.
My Take – With the major success story of WB‘s ‘Crazy Rich Asians‘ and the Netflix film ‘Set It Up‘, it looks like the genre of romantic comedy is well on its way back into the spotlight and will no longer remain undermined by its under-cooked by-the-numbers formula structure. And now we get Jesse Peretz (Our Idiot Brother) directed film, an adaption of the 2009 novel of the same name by author Nick Hornby (About a Boy, High Fidelity, An Education, and Brooklyn). Although there are many romantic comedies on the subject of music and midlife perspective, this one proves to be breezy and good-natured, along with being every bit as easy to embrace, mainly the film is deliciously funny and full of clever twists.
It pokes gentle fun at all the characters, who seem a little ridiculous but still ring true. That’s not to say the film isn’t without its contrivances and predictability, but like any good rom-com, it has a way of charming its audience into overlooking them. It’s the kind of film you want to love, warts and all. Also, when bringing this type of rom-com, you better have charming lead performers, and it sure does provide an ideal showcase for the talents of its three stars, Rose Byrne, Ethan Hawke and Chris O’Dowd.
The story follows Annie (Rose Byrne), a museum curator in a forgotten English seaside town, who has been in a long time suffering relationship with Duncan (Chris O’Dowd), a 3rd-rate college lecturer. While she internally despises him for letting her talk out of not having kids, her main problem stands with his obsession over Tucker Crowe (Ethan Hawke), a once-popular American singer-songwriter, who disappeared 20-years ago after releasing an album called Juliet. In his spare time Duncan devotes his life to discussing and extolling the music of the legendary rock star and has also created an online forum for the rock star’s most rabid fans.
Feeling that she will always be on the losing side of the competition with Crowe for her boyfriend’s attention, Annie seizes an opportunity to write a critical review of a CD containing early versions and outtakes of the songs on Juliet, called Juliet, Naked, all just to spite him. To her surprise, the review spurs the elusive Crowe to reach out to Annie online and concur with her judgment, a step which leads to the beginning of a beautiful, and very personal, correspondence, which also leads to some entertainingly awkward results for Duncan.
This is an irresistible premise, and manages to be witty and engaging from the get-go, director Jesse Peretz‘s comedy hits a new high as soon Annie aligns with the former rock star. Sure, it’s a story we have seen many times before. However, the film is told in the scope of something interest with the unbelievable probability of a rock-star coming into the life of a super fan after a bad review was written online. It’s a relatable film that is just pleasing all throughout, as the film jumps back and forth between England and the U.S. However, what’s mostly on the mind of the writer and the director is the way in which these characters have chosen to lead their lives. Annie has been, and continues to be, way too cautious and, as a result, is suffering from emotional and psychological paralysis. Mainly as her life has stalled out largely because she stayed for 15 years in her dead-end relationship with Duncan.
While Tucker hasn’t so much as opened his guitar case in more than a decade, and is confronting the consequences of having so many children he doesn’t know by so many women who can’t stand him, which includes a pregnant daughter Tucker hasn’t seen in a decade, and the little boy who has finally stirred Tucker’s present-tense parental feelings. Like many a successful musician, Crowe has made a hash of his personal life, putting himself first and profoundly disappointing his lovers and children. But we meet Crowe at a time when he’s finally facing up to his mistakes and trying to be a good dad to his youngest child. Annie, too, is eager to make a change, and finds in Crowe an unlikely sounding board for her own frustrations.
Their mutual struggle feels authentic, and the film realistically leaves their fate open-ended. And in the middle, is Duncan who spends way too much of his time focusing on the emotional content of Crowe’s songs and very little time focusing on the emotional content contained in the heart of his neglected girlfriend, Annie.
Occasionally, Duncan’s hurt ex-boyfriend shtick wears thin and his affair with colleague Gina (Denise Gough) is awkwardly irrelevant, but the film still manages to be a winner. The film also pays real careful attention to Duncan’s emotional connection to Crowe and his songs. Sure, the film, and I assume the book, plays his obsessing for laughs, but, it also respects it, too. This could have not been clearer than a pivotal scene, somewhere in the middle moving towards the end of the film, where Duncan and Crowe come face to face. Playing out as one of the best scenes in the film is Duncan’s eloquent defense of devotees. Experiencing art is unique to the individual and that experience can have a special meaning, whether the artist likes it or not. Some creative types have a penchant for dismissing their audience. Duncan’s, “What gave you the idea that art is for the enjoyment of the artist?” was something of an epiphany. While the obsessive fan collides with the object of his obsession and the results, though predictably awkward, cringe worthy and painfully funny, also reveal each character’s sensitive sore spots. The scene sticks its’ landing and then some. It’s wonderfully played out.
Let’s not forget this is a romantic comedy, though, as we have a gratuitous horn-dog lesbian sister for comic relief. There’s also a superfluous film health crises–the kind that’ll put you in a hospital bed but still leave you looking damn sexy. That’s also a convenient setting for the farce of all your children gathering in the same room with your assorted exes all shouting at the same time. But most romantic comedies end with a look ahead at the lives of the key characters, and this one does that but it’s in a satisfying method. And in the end it feels like the key characters have earned their futures rather than having them bestowed by a guy alone in the writers’ room.
However, none of this would have worked if the performances weren’t so well aligned with the film. Rose Byrne has well proved how funny she can be while sharing screen space with Seth Rogen in the Neighbors films, and here she manages not to trivialize her character’s prolonged depression, and uses it to great comic effect to portray her character’s chipper deflections of genuine distress. Ethan Hawke is completely believable as an aging and tortured musician trying to make things right. He does a fine job of slipping into the skin of a man who has just recently caught up to his responsibilities and is making a genuine, though clumsy, attempt to unscrew up as much of his screwed up life as he can. Chris O’Dowd also nails his job as the film’s chief buffoon, but also brings a degree of pathos to this self-important pop-culture specialist who’s blind to the needs of the wistful girlfriend. On the whole, ‘Juliet, Naked’ is a rare modern romantic comedy that is simply charming, smart and delightful from start to finish.
Directed – Jesse Peretz
Rated – R
Run Time – 105 minutes