Juliet, Naked (2018)

19 Nov

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Juliet, Naked”—awkward title; doesn’t really demand to be projected on a marquee of your local cinema, does it? (There are other jokes I could’ve made about the title, but let’s just move on to the review.)

“Juliet, Naked” is based on the Nick Hornby novel of the same name, directed by Jesse Peretz (“Girls”), and features three brilliant comic performances from Rose Byrne, Ethan Hawke, and Chris O’Dowd as three of the most offbeat, neurotically insane movie characters of 2018. (That last part is truly what makes me recommend this film—I admittedly haven’t read Hornby’s novel nor have I seen Peretz’s previous accomplishments, though if they’re as witty and sharp as what’s presented in “Juliet, Naked” (or other film adaptations of Hornby’s work, like “High Fidelity” or “About a Boy”), that counts for something.) It’s a winning, charming romantic comedy with three characters heading in different directions in life—one wants something more than what she has, one tries again and again to connect with other people, and the other is content with where he is.

That first person is Annie (Rose Byrne delivering some of her best work). She’s quiet, sweet, and tolerates her boyfriend Duncan with whom she has lived for 15 years…even though his true love is actually (and not so secretly) the life and music of the mysterious musician Tucker Crowe. She becomes more resentful of her time with Duncan because she feels like there are more chances out there that she could take.

The second person is Tucker Crowe (Ethan Hawke). He’s a singer-songwriter who was moderately popular in the early 1990s before he mysteriously (and suddenly) vanished. He’s become a legend for all obsessed fans of his music, most of whom come together to visit a fanmade website that is devoted to all things related to Tucker Crowe (complete with absurd theories about where he is now).

And the third…is the blogger who created the site: Duncan (Chris O’Dowd), a college professor. As stated before with Annie, he cares about very little apart from Tucker Crowe. Either Annie has the patience of a saint or Duncan’s never going to stop to smell the roses and count his blessings—either way, Duncan’s pretty obnoxious about his obsession with either Tucker Crowe’s music or the sound of Tucker Crowe’s voice. (Side-note: Tucker Crowe’s music is hardly an important factor here…though, what little we hear of the music sounds like hardly anything other than easygoing alt-pop sounds.) Duncan is the least realized character of the three in this film, but at least O’Dowd is solid and funny in the role. (Additional side-note: stay through the credits for a hilarious payoff.)

In “Juliet, Naked,” someone sends Duncan a CD titled “Juliet, Naked,” which turns out to be an undiscovered demo filled with unfinished versions of the songs that would end up in Tucker Crowe’s most infamous album, “Juliet.” (There—now you have an explanation for the title.) Annie finds it first and listens to it, much to the dismay of Duncan. She posts a very negative review of the CD on Duncan’s site, which results in a surprising email response from Tucker Crowe himself, saying she “got it right.” So, unbeknownst to Duncan, Annie and Tucker Crowe correspond through email and get to know each other’s awkward secrets before they decide to meet in person. Among the secrets of the life of Tucker Crowe: he lives in his ex-wife’s garage, he has more than one ex, and he has several children scattered throughout the world, thus indicating that he’s trying to rearrange many aspects of his life that don’t involve music.

I won’t dare reveal what happens when Duncan ultimately (and inevitably) meets his long-time idol for the first time…what you might be thinking in your head may be funnier than what actually occurs, but it’s still just as awkward and funny, I assure you.

What makes “Juliet, Naked” work are the flawed characters (played wonderfully by all three actors—and there’s also Lily Brazier in a funny side-role as Annie’s lesbian sister) and the writing behind them (originated from Nick Hornby and adapted by Evgenia Peretz, Jim Taylor, and Tamara Jenkins). Where it truly shines is the low-key romance that slowly develops between Annie and Tucker, who are two flawed people trying to get their lives sorted out.

Another thing I want to comment upon is the use of improvisation. This is an Apatow-produced romantic comedy—many films produced by Judd Apatow tend to stall during numerous scenes of heavy improvisation from actors who aren’t given much control and are almost desperate for laughs. But with “Juliet, Naked,” the laughs come from a witty script and the improvs feel (gasp!) NATURAL. (I turn back to the scene in which Tucker and Duncan meet for example.) It doesn’t feel forced in the slightest, and I admire the film (and the actors’ abilities) for that.

“Juliet, Naked” is a carefully observed romantic comedy about people who are getting older, don’t know where they’re going in the future, and need help, whether they know it or not. Sometimes, it’s sweet (without being sugary). Sometimes, it’s funny (without being mean). And overall, it’s a little film with more heart than a title like “Juliet, Naked” would make anyone think.

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