Juliet, Naked: The Title Must Refer to the Script

Juliet, Naked (2018)
Directed by Jesse Peretz
Lionsgate, 105 minutes, R (For F-bombs?)

Nick Hornsby is an interesting writer. Ethan Hawke is a wonderful actor. But this doesn't mean that every book or film associated with the two is a winner. Juliet, Naked is a case in point. This is one of those films you stream on a night in which your brain is fried and you want pure escapism.

The film takes its name from the album title of a one-hit-wonder rock musician. We zero in on a fading beach town southeast of London, where Annie Platt (Rose Bryne) runs the local history museum and shares an airy apartment with her longtime boyfriend Duncan Thompson (Chris O'Dowd). Duncan is a college professor obsessed with Tucker Crowe, a rock star who disappeared during a concert interval 25 years earlier. Annie is fed up hearing about Crowe and her annoyance grows deeper when someone sends Duncan an acoustic demo of Crowe's only album, Juliet, Naked. Duncan is analogous to diehard Deadheads who insist that everything the band did was transcendent. Annie's listening–and she couldn't avoid it if she tried–is that the demos are rubbish. But Duncan is into his fantasy way more than he is into Annie.

Her response to Duncan's video blog touting the demo's virtues is to post a comment to the site calling Crowe's music lame. Duncan is infuriated and a sharper wedge is driven into his failing relationship with Annie. The big surprise, though, is that Annie gets an email from Crowe himself (Ethan Hawke) in which he agrees with every word she wrote. Tucker has no idea that Duncan is Annie's partner and wonders who the obsessed idiot who has been writing about him for years might be. The two begin a regular email conversation and connections between to deepen. When Tucker tells her that he will be flying to London to see his pregnant daughter, Lizzie (Ayoola Smart), plans are laid to meet.

Serve some false start leftovers, drizzle with complications, and toss in some toasted clichés and you could have written the script; especially if you've seen Sleepless in Seattle and Searching for Sugar Man. Tucker's life has been such a mess that he sees his attempt to be a good dad to 6-year-old Jackson as perhaps his last shot at redemption. This, of course, is never true in a rom-com, but tossing in sentimental fatherhood and, in Annie's case, empty womb essentialism are common elements for novelists and script writers aiming for lowest common denominator mass appeal.

The overall thinness of the story is revealed in subplots that go nowhere, such as the love life of Annie's lesbian sister Ros and Duncan's attraction to a new colleague. There are several scenes that are as broad as a Victorian drawing room play from a second-tier writer, such as a particularly silly (and unlikely) hospital scene and a forced impromptu performance from Tucker. (He sings a Kinks song.) Even the central revelation about the identity of Juliet and the back-story of the record feels like a let down.

There are two reasons to give the film a look: Hawke and Bryne. Hawke plays Tucker as if he's a mix of Jeff "The Dude" Lebowski and Cat Stevens. He's such a fine actor that he can drift through a film and still look good, which is pretty much what he does in Juliet, Naked. Rose Bryne is radiant as Annie. She physically embodies (undeveloped) themes of fading glory (the seaside town, central relationships, Crowe's reputation). At age 39, the Australian-born actress is still gorgeous, but she plays Annie with just enough exasperation and weariness to appear haggard around her luminous edges. Like Hawke, she needs a life refresh button before it's too late. I wish I could say that O'Dowd was equally subtle, as the script is set up to be a Duncan-Rose-Tucker triad. Alas, O'Dowd is all annoyance and no charm, which taints his performance with histrionic excess. 

In the end, Juliet, Naked isn't a horrible film, but neither is it a good one. The prevailing emotion one gets watching it is that it's all right, but should have been much better. Like I said upfront, call this one a film for a no-heavy-thinking evening.

Rob Weir

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