Juliet, Naked strips romance down to nagging self-doubt

Movie review: Juliet, Naked

Director Jesse Peretz brings alt-rock authenticity to Nick Hornby’s story of a singer-songwriter who fell off the map, only to be rediscovered by the long-suffering partner of an obsessive fan. Ethan Hawke and Chris O’Dowd offer pure performance, but it’s Rose Byrne’s quiet navigation of personal desire that redeems the ego-fest.

Juliet, Naked

3.5/5

Starring: Rose Byrne, Ethan Hawke, Chris O’Dowd

Directed by: Jesse Peretz

Written by: Evgenia Peretz, Jim Taylor, Tamara Jenkins, Nick Hornby (Novel)

Running time: 1 hr 38 mins

Rating: Restricted

By Katherine Monk

Music nerds, like goalies, are of a certain breed. They are born defensive and often stand alone. We can either pity them, join them in their cause, or stand back with the crowd and judge — which tends to be the most entertaining approach, and one Nick Hornby has mastered. Juliet, Naked is just the latest proof.

As the writer behind such successful novels as About a Boy and High Fidelity, Hornby seems to understand the musty nooks of insecurity and the crannies of ego that make up the male identity. He grasps why a middle-aged man would obsess over a ‘90s-era singer-songwriter and every obscure recording “the misunderstood genius” ever created. Yet, he doesn’t always grant them empathy, because despite the Id drive of the Internet, we all have to live together.

As the writer behind such successful novels as About a Boy and High Fidelity, Hornby seems to understand the musty nooks of insecurity and the crannies of ego that make up the male identity.

For Annie (Rose Byrne), the heroine of Juliet, Naked, Hornby’s latest story adapted to the big screen with the help of Jesse Peretz (Girls) and his sister Evgenia (Our Idiot Brother), that idea boils down to everyday life with her partner, Duncan (Chris O’Dowd). Though he’s an English professor at the local college, Duncan spends most of his time analyzing and idolizing the work of Tucker Crowe (Ethan Hawke), a tortured alt-rock poet who disappeared halfway through a show and never came back. His last album, Juliet, is considered a breakup classic — and a persistent puzzle for his hardcore fans as a potential clue to Tucker’s Crowe’s fate.

Annie couldn’t care less about Tucker Crowe, so when she opens a package containing a CD with the words “Juliet, Naked” written in black Sharpie, she puts it in the computer (yes, she has an old one with a drive) and gives the plaintive acoustic tracks her ears.

She hates it. So she submits a review to Duncan’s website. From here, two things happen that propel the rest of the story and supply plenty of comic exchanges. First, she has a fight with Duncan about opening the package and listening to Juliet, Naked before him. Second, her negative review prompts a direct reply from none other than Tucker Crowe himself — who agrees with her frank assessment.

Well, you can imagine where things go from here as Tucker and Annie begin a digital correspondence, and Duncan eventually blows off with another instructor who indulges his boy-man desires. It’s based on a Nick Hornby book, after all.

Romance abounds, but it’s written into the hands of Annie’s character thanks to a script retooled by Vanity Fair editor Evgenia Peretz. Annie is the only real grown-up in the bunch, but she escapes the brunt of the buzzkill brush because we’re on her page. We feel the constant state of compromise she’s lived in just to keep her life together. We also feel her yearning for something more — without being entirely convinced she truly wants change.

Romance abounds, but it’s written into the hands of Annie’s character thanks to a script retooled by Vanity Fair editor Evgenia Peretz. Annie is the only real grown-up in the bunch, but she escapes the brunt of the buzzkill brush because we’re on her page.

She’s a subtle character compared to the two male leads. Both O’Dowd and Hawke are given license to man-spread and man-splain their way through every scene. They do it with charm and humour, but Byrne has to access something different with Annie. She has to absorb all their energy without disappearing into the background, and emotionally redeem them in the same breath. It’s no small task, but Byrne is willing to carry the burden all the way to the box-office.

What’s curious is how strong her performance really is without a single memorable “moment” or defining scene. Usually, a movie like this might give a Meg Ryan or a Toni Collette or an Emma Stone a good chewy piece of dialogue to showcase their pluck. Peretz doesn’t really oblige, but that moment isn’t in Annie’s nature.

Byrne has to access something different with Annie. She has to absorb all their energy without disappearing into the background, and emotionally redeem them in the same breath.

She’s the sweet wife backstage who is kind to everyone, but makes sure the band gets paid. Strong, sympathetic, but on the quiet side — more out of pragmatism than a lack of verbal skill. Byrne conveys all these subtleties so beautifully that you just think, oh — that must be who she is in real-life.

By contrast, you can feel the male performers performing. Hawke is already earning Oscar chatter for his take on the soulful burnout, and O’Dowd lifts his comic lilt to ensure the selfish loser still feels sweet. They both demand your attention, and director Jesse Peretz, who once upon a time played in a band with Evan Dando and Juliana Hatfield called The Lemonheads, gives them all the room they need to show their stuff.

They suck up all the air in the room, and that’s the point. Men are always performing, while women are left to watch and applaud, or walk away. The fact that Annie just seems weary and somewhat invisible is the movie’s biggest victory when it comes to authenticity and true performance, but it’s also the film’s biggest liability from both a dramatic and comic perspective.

They suck up all the air in the room, and that’s the point. Men are always performing, while women are left to watch and applaud, or walk away.

Juliet, Naked is a classic romance stripped down to its underwhelming core, where we’re forced to see the reality of two people struggling through doubt in subtle ways. There’s no big payoff or crazy climax, just a believable string of comic moments that underscore the human need for connection.

@katherinemonk

Main image: Rose Byrne and Ethan Hawke in JULIET,NAKED. Photo credit Alex Bailey. Courtesy of Elevation Pictures.
THE EX-PRESS, August 31, 2018

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Summary

Director Jesse Peretz brings alt-rock authenticity to Nick Hornby’s story of a singer-songwriter who fell off the map, only to be rediscovered by the long-suffering partner of an obsessive fan. Ethan Hawke and Chris O’Dowd offer pure performance, but it’s Rose Byrne’s quiet navigation of personal desire that redeems the ego-fest. - Katherine Monk

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