By Karen Gordon
If you have been jonesing for a British rom-com since the Hugh Grant era, then get thee to a movie theatre. The low key, charming as heck, Juliet, Naked - based on the Nick Hornby novel - might just sooth your craving.
Despite his American provenance, director Jesse Peretz has seamlessly repicated the gently comic vibe of the Grant/Richard Curtis oeuvre, with this tale of pop musical obsession/fandom and romantic surprise.
Rose Byrne stars as Annie. She lives in a small rundown English seaside town, where she has taken over her late father’s job of running the town’s museum. She’s been in a relationship with Duncan (Chris O'Dowd) for 15 years.
Duncan is a film studies professor at the local college. But he spends his spare time in his office, which is a shrine to an American singer songwriter named Tucker Crowe (Ethan Hawke).
Crowe’s big era was the late ‘80s/early ‘90s, when he was on the cusp of a fame explosion. But after releasing an album called Juliet, he went into seclusion with no explanation, and pretty much disappeared, leaving fans to speculate.
Duncan runs a Tucker Crowe website where he and fellow fans do just that, and obsessively discuss all things Crowe. In fact, his obsession with Crowe is so central to Duncan that he doesn’t seem to notice that Annie is a flesh and blood human. He treats her dismissively and she, in turn, wryly tolerates his fixation.
One day Duncan gets a mystery package in the mail that amounts to a kind of Holy Grail for Crowe fans: a full length acoustic demo recording of Juliet called Juliet, Naked, that was rumoured to exist for years. Duncan goes on line with the treasure and declares it a work of genius. Partly in rebellion, Annie posts a negative review in the comments section of the site under a pseudonym.
To her surprise, she gets a personal response to her email from someone who says he’s Tucker Crowe, who kind of agrees with her. She’s skeptical about who this really might be, but the two begin to correspond and share bits of their lives, and things go from there.
Director Peretz previously made Our Idiot Brother and has directed sharp TV shows including Girls and Nurse Jackie, where tone and character were key. He’s done the same for Juliet, Naked, keeping things quiet and not showy.
One of the charms of this kind of rom-com is that it feels familiar. We all know an Annie, or maybe have been Annie at some point in our lives, going through the days as best we can, trying to hold back a growing sense of disquiet that says it’s time for a major change.
Annie knows that she’s stuck, that her relationship with Duncan has petered out into something less than friendly cohabitation, and that staying with him will only make that worse. But she hasn’t really gotten up the energy to contemplate beyond that.
Emailing with Tucker (or whoever he really is), forces her to put into words things that have been hovering in the back of her mind. Once she’s actually articulated those words, she can’t put the genie back in the bottle, as they say.
The rom-com is a formula, but it’s hard to formulate correctly. It must have the right blend of characters, with enough quirks to make the story funny, instead of tragic (but not so much that the whole thing melts into a treacly mess).
Juliet, Naked has a terrific cast. Byrne is always a pleasure to watch, partly because she never showboats. Annie is the center of the film, but Byrne has the confidence not to overplay to draw attention to her.
Hawke is another terrific, confident actor. He’s often praised for playing intense, tortured characters in movies like Training Day or this summer’s critically acclaimed First Reformed. But I like him best in movies like this, or the Before Trilogy he did opposite Julie Delpy for director Richard Linklater, where he plays an average guy, navigating life and problems.
Hawke is an internal actor and a subtle one, and it’s a pleasure watching him here as he scrolls through his reactions.
If the piece has a villain, it’s Duncan. His self-absorption is epic, his obsession verges on the delusional. But O’Dowd is such a sympathetic actor, that you can’t help but like this guy.
Duncan is the puer aeternus (man-child) with a superiority attitude. He thinks he’s noble and heroic. But really, in middle age, his obsession reads as a stunted adolescence.
This business of adults holding onto their obsessions is a theme in many Nick Hornby’s novels. What looked great in university, may look foolish on an older person. But the movie doesn’t make fun of Duncan, as much as it understands that, for the pop culture generation, music, movies, comic books, bring a certain kind of meaning.
All three characters are tossing and turning in their own lives, to varying degrees. As they crash into each other the changes are inevitable.
So yes, it’s a formula and we’ve been here before. But the characters are engaging, the performances elevate the material, and the various dilemmas of each gives this more layers than you might expect.
Good romantic comedies aren’t just about hurdles on the road to love. They’re also about having faith that, despite your worst efforts, there’s a little magic left for you in the universe. Juliet, Naked nurtures that ember of faith.
Juliet, Naked. Directed by Jesse Peretz, scripted by Evgenia Peretz, Jim Taylor and Tamara Jenkins from a novel by Nick Hornby. Stars Rose Byrne, Ethan Hawke and Chris O’Dowd. Opens across Canada Friday, August 31.