Juliet, Naked, 2018.
Directed by Jesse Peretz.
Starring Rose Byrne, Ethan Hawke, Chris O’Dowd, Megan Dodds, Lily Newmark, Jimmy O. Yang, Azhy Robertson, Ayoola Smart, Lily Brazier, Johanna Thea, Georgina Bevan, and Tom Patrick Stephens.
Juliet, Naked is the story of Annie (the long-suffering girlfriend of Duncan) and her unlikely transatlantic romance with once revered, now faded, singer-songwriter, Tucker Crowe, who also happens to be the subject of Duncan’s musical obsession.
Juliet, Naked is billed as a romantic comedy (and I would assume also heavily marketed as one), and while it the most effective offering from the genre in quite some time, it’s character study aspects are what truly make it stand out. Ethan Hawke continues to have a banner year (not only is he deserving of a best actor nomination for First Reformed, he also has another directorial feature set to release next month titled Blaze which powerfully dives into the life of the largely unknown but magnificent country singer Blaze Foley), here portraying a fictional celebrated former rock star named Tucker Crowe who has lived out the majority of his adult life hiding away from the outside world.
Taken through an opening montage highlighting the milestones and overall success of the musician, we learn that Tucker had a falling out with his significant other Juliet, released the favorable album named after her which primarily consisted of depressing heartbreak tracks, and quit the industry forever. There’s more to it, however, as following that the rest of the details are pure speculation based on the part of obsessive superfan Duncan (Chris O’Dowd hilariously playing up the manchild characteristics here as someone more in love with his idol than his actual girlfriend) who runs an online forum for dedicated sycophants similar to himself. Collectively, they shit-post all sorts of ridiculous theories on what happened to Tucker, and as you probably already expect, once the film allows the viewers to catch up with the real Tucker it becomes evident that these clowns are way off the mark.
Stuck in the middle in this childish situation and neglected in the process is Annie (Rose Byrne in a delightfully charming turn), the frustrated relationship partner also working on curating a 1960s exhibit alongside her sister following in the footsteps of their now deceased father. Naturally, Duncan’s unhealthy fascination with uncovering, checking out, and debunking myths regarding Tucker over furthering their relationship into getting married or budging on his firm stance against having children or even simply paying attention to the lonely and annoyed woman, pushes Annie to her breaking point causing her to sign up for the fan-site herself and to write a negative review of the Juliet, Naked demo that arrives in their home. She also listened to it before Duncan even knew it was in the house which didn’t sit right with him; presumably, in her commitment to make things work with this goofball, she wanted to have a listen and see what the fuss is about. Tucker Crowe is destroying everything they have, but maybe if she can understand the artistry, things can be salvaged before reaching irreparable damage.
With all of that preamble out-of-the-way, it doesn’t take long for some of the users on the site to side with Annie, causing the washed-up star himself to reach out to her via email and strike up a friendship. Not only does such a dynamic force Annie to separate the art from the artist, but the texting exchanges are done surprisingly genuine and feel sweet; it’s like watching a long-distance relationship take shape in real time, but with believable characters, authentic dialogue, and relatable situations. Likewise, we also get to know and understand Tucker better. And that’s easily the strongest area of Juliet, Naked; so often we hear about rock stars destroying their lives and future on sex, drugs, and alcohol, but here we get the aftermath and are granted the opportunity to witness a screwup attempt to correct all of the wrongs. Keep in mind, sympathy for Annie is right up there, as we desperately want her to escape her current terrible love life.
Tucker is currently living in the garage of one of his many ex-wives, occasionally surrounded by the company of one of his younger children Jackson (pretty much all of the children are from different partners), and is in the middle of meeting another kid for the first time. Conveniently, she lives in London just like Annie, so it’s no spoiler that the two will inevitably cross paths in the flesh. What follows is a sidesplitting sequence where Annie basically meets Tucker alongside all of his ex-girlfriends and children. However, underneath all of the laughs is something very human that just works excellently; the film (directed by High Fidelity‘s Jesse Peretz with multiple writers adapting the popular novel from Nick Hornby). leans into the drama just as much as the romantic comedy antics, washing away its predictability. There are three likely endings that will be going through your head throughout the majority of the movie, and due to the tight writing and strong characters (even Duncan at his most insufferable is a well-rounded character, although he could use fewer moments of clueless stupidity) it will feel like any of them can happen, or possibly something not on your radar.
Looking back on this review so far, it does stick out that I spent quite a lot of words describing the overall narrative, and that’s because the set-up is fairly original and requires explaining. It’s a story of two people questioning what the hell they are doing with their lives but from an unconventional and creative perspective. It’s easy to root for a happy outcome in this developing relationship, and there are also scenes of heavy emotion. Remember, Tucker is trying to make things right with everyone he has ever abandoned; sometimes that will turn out okay and other times it will result in sadness.
There’s also something to be said regarding how many of the best albums in the world are recorded by artists at the lowest point of their lives. For example, take Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor (to be fair, he is the entire band, capable of playing just about every instrument but that’s a discussion for another time); he wrote The Downward Spiral (which contains a song so emotional that Johnny Cash himself covered it before dying) drugged and depressed out of his mind, and possibly suicidal. Once clean, his music never reached those heights again (although he has contributed some incredible soundtracks to recent films). It’s still good and I enjoyed the most recent album, but art grabs people most when it becomes dark and deeply personal. Duncan’s fandom for the Juliet album here strikes a similar chord, leading to a heated encounter between artist and consumer debating who art is for. And while I don’t want to give it away, the film pretty much acknowledges everything I just said during its ending credits with a great joke.
Juliet, Naked is just as much an analysis on music industry art as it is an original romantic comedy full of memorable characters and hilarity. Not only that, but the performances from Ethan Hawke, Rose Byrne, and Chris O’Dowd are magnetic; every second with these people is something to treasure. The suffering from the characters’ stagnant lives is felt, the themes are properly approached and conveyed without passing judgment, and feel-good love is in the air. The competition isn’t exactly steep, but Juliet, Naked is the best film of its genre in years.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, friend me on Facebook, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, check out my personal non-Flickering Myth affiliated Patreon, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com