Annie and Duncan live in a sleepy coastal English town (not, uh, that one). Annie, played with glorious and disarming charm by Rose Byrne, struggles to make sense of her life with her long time boyfriend Duncan, an opinionated asshole made tolerable by Chris O’Dowd’s comedic charm. Duncan isn’t doing much beyond obsessing over Tucker Crowe, a one album wonder of the indie rock circuit circa 1993. That one album is called Juliet. We get ample proof of Duncan's intense focus on Crowe and Juliet in the web video he produced that opens the film.
One day, a stripped down for spare parts version of that album called, you’ll totally never guess, ok, I’ll tell you, it’s Juliet, Naked, ok, you guessed my bad, arrives in the mail. When Annie posts a less than appreciative take on his vanished indie rocker idol’s latest, Duncan takes it . . . terribly, it’s safe to say. In the middle of Annie and Duncan’s troubles, none other than Tucker Crowe reaches out to Annie. Tucker is played by Ethan Hawke in a grunged out version of his charismatic Jesse, from Richard Linklater’s Sunrise trilogy (also featuring the stunning work of Julie Delpy, I have to say). As it happens, Tucker takes a similarly dim view of that album. What follows is . . . well, it’s not exactly the stuff of a Harlequin romance or a Spanish soap opera. Juliet, Naked, the movie, not the album, may not be a breathless romance, but it is a charming exploration of the sense of connection that can be made between two souls who have done little more than drift toward the shores of middle age.
One of the many rewarding aspects of Juliet, Naked, directed by Jesse Peretz, written by Evgenia Peretz and husband and wife team Jim Murray and Tamara Jenkins, is how it works through the pervasive layering and mythologizing of the past that clutter our minds and paralyze us moving forward, both personally and as a culture. Don’t get me wrong, Juliet, Naked is not a searing, dense analysis of our tortured relationship with the myths we create for ourselves and force on others, but rather a gentle thought experiment along similar lines, focusing on what it would be like for two people who become aware of how caged they feel by the past, in complementary ways, to find each other where we regularly get to laugh with them and very rarely at them.
The wonderful casting of Byrne and Hawke makes the interactions between Tucker and Annie a genuine pleasure to watch. There is a groundedness to their resigned truth telling as they share emails about disappointment in their own lives with one another. I also experienced a heartfelt sense of recognition at the endorphin high Annie and Tucker get during the early stages of their digital correspondence, before they meet IRL. It’s a delightfully real touch in a film that occasionally has to bend over backwards to get the plot going. The quiet joy of this film for me is how lived these characters feel, like people and not bundles of rom-com tropes. It’s a film full of shaggy moments that have few plot machinations but lots of personal stakes, like the scenes in the hospital after Tucker suffers a heart attack, nearly all of Annie’s time with Tucker’s young son Jackson, and their walks along the beach. Most of the scenes are unforced and unhurried, unbothered by plot, even the act of introducing Duncan to his idol doesn’t result in painfully awkward romantic hijinks and crossed wires. While Ethan Hawke is a known quantity in this mode, at least to me, I was blown away by how well Rose Byrne matches his emotional gait in their scenes together and just in general how wonderfully effective she is at conveying desire and exasperation and sadness and determination, sometimes all at once.
Juliet, Naked operates, almost inevitably, in the shadow of that other Nick Hornby adaptation, the cult classic, High Fidelity. John Cusack’s Rob is, like O’Dowd’s Duncan, an abrasive obsessive whose condescension is monumentally tempered by the self-effacing charisma and sense of humor of the actor playing the role. High Fidelity focuses on reuniting Rob with his girlfriend Laura amidst Rob’s navel gazing mid-life crisis and that really worked . . . in 2000. But now? In the #MeToo era, it would actually feel weird to give too many shits about Duncan, yet another opinionated, thoughtless middle-aged douche, who consumes mountains of emotional energy and is more than willing to crush and/or ignore the opinions of others, as we get vividly portrayed for us during one particularly disastrous dinner scene. Duncan might be salvageable, as Rob was, but I wouldn’t wish that task on any real-life Annie, so it’s quite refreshing that the cinematic Annie does not feel burdened with that task either. Nor is she the emotional pack-mule for Tucker and his many many issues. The film’s sympathies are firmly with Annie, with helping her unearth what she wants out of life and why her current life is wrong for her and that is as it should be.
If you are looking for an intricate comic tale of a fraught three-headed relationship, Juliet, Naked will disappoint. That would be a shame. The film is far more focused on its characters than its plot and if you like spending time with two people who are trying to work out how to be their best selves after years of failing to do that, Juliet, Naked will be an enjoyable experience, a modern rom-com for the laid back and the introspective, existential question types. It’s a bloody miracle it made it to the big screen at all, though I suspect many will only discover this movie as it filters down to the small screens where people’s lives are closer to the pace of this delightful film. I mean, it’ll be worth it if you don’t wait that long, but hit me up when you do.
Juliet, Naked is 105 minutes long and rated R. It’s out wide now, check your local listings.