Juliet, Naked (Jesse Peretz, 2018) 3 out of 4 stars.
An appealing – if sometimes unfocused – twist on the romantic-comedy genre, Jesse Peretz’s Juliet, Naked offers both Rose Byrne (The Meddler) and Ethan Hawke (First Reformed) a chance to be extraordinarily charming on screen, with Chris O’Dowd (The Program) as their acerbic sidekick. Set, for the most part, in the picturesque seaside town of Broadstairs, in east Kent, England, the film is visually engaging, as well, even as it devolves, at times, into parodic caricatures of cute provincials. Still, despite its occasional flaws – among them an overreliance on expositional voiceover – the movie holds one’s interest throughout and delivers a tale that honors real-life experience, rather than cinematic fantasy.
Byrne plays Annie, approaching 40 and living with her long-term academic boyfriend Duncan (O’Dowd), a man obsessed with filmic and musical esoterica, particularly anything having to do with former rock star Tucker Crowe, who disappeared 20 years prior at the peak of his fame. Duncan and Annie are an established local couple, though it’s clear from their domestic life that they stick together more from habit than from passion. She works for the mayor’s office, and they have so little in common one wonders how they’ve lasted this long. Then, one day, Duncan receives a CD in the mail of an acoustic version of the vanished Crowe’s most famous album, “Juliet.” Annie’s and Duncan’s vastly different reactions to the disc – she thinks it’s insipid (it is), while Duncan reveres every note – lead the former to write a negative review on the latter’s Crowe-themed website. So far, so shaggy (and not in a bad way); but then the film takes its best narrative turn, bringing Crowe, himself, into the mix.
It turns out that Crowe, very much alive and (somewhat) well in his native United States, peruses his fan sites, and something in Annie’s comments – particularly the bracing honesty – catches his eye. They begin a correspondence, and when Annie’s and Duncan’s incompatibility comes to a head, Annie’s and Tucker’s epistolary flirtation develops into something potentially more serious. But all is not so easy, as Crowe has more than the usual baggage. A sober alcoholic and addict, with children from multiple marriages, he now attempts to make up for past misdeeds by being the best father he can to his young son, Jackson (whose mother, ex-wife number umpteen, lets Crowe stay in the garage behind her house). As he puts it to Annie when they finally meet, it’s impossible to just press re-set on life, and try as he might, he can’t quite expiate all his sins. Nor should he, if one believes in karma, though we appreciate his efforts.
Hawke plays Crowe (and performs all Crowe’s music, as well) as a man well aware that second (or third, or fourth) chances need to be earned. There’s still a bit of the enfant terrible in him, but with age has come more than a modicum of maturity. He is the antithesis of the overgrown boy that is Duncan (and when fanboy and object of fandom cross paths, it makes for quite an amusing scene). Where the film shines best is in the moments – some funny, some bittersweet, some just sweet – between him and Annie, as they slowly develop respect for the people behind the emails. Neither is a perfect savior for the other, however, and another great aspect of the film is its celebration of each character’s imperfections. That’s kind of the stock in trade of writer Nick Hornby (About a Boy), from whose book of the same title the movie is adapted, and what I like most about his work. Director Peretz (Our Idiot Brother) mostly does the story justice, then, crafting an enjoyable adult yarn with just enough unexpected surprises to keep us guessing. Occasional script faults or not, that’s a good thing.