Juliet, Naked is that rare romantic comedy that also happens to be thoughtful and grown-up. Admittedly the men in the story seem to be struggling with the grown-up part. Refreshingly though, so is Annie (Rose Byrne).
Byrne’s Annie is one of my favorite characters of the year. She doesn’t save the day and she doesn’t get revenge. Instead, she realizes it’s never too late to change your life or to be happy. Her Annie is a quiet, intelligent, confused, and fascinating character. If only because she seems like a real human being as opposed to some towering fantasy of a heroine.
The list of movies about men dealing with their mid-life crisis is endless. You could argue that the genre of men being terrified of obsolescence is one of the founding pillars of the art form. Juliet, Naked eschews that by saying women have those same fears as they grow older as well. Hardly a staggering epiphany, but based on how films usually treat women over thirty, it sure as heck feels like one.
Annie’s boyfriend Duncan (Chris O’Dowd) is obsessed with a mid-90’s alternative rock musician Tucker Crowe (Ethan Hawke). He runs a website and a forum dedicated to obsessing over the musician and his one released album. Annie doesn’t understand his obsession but whatever, it’s his thing. Except Duncan demands his obsession be taken seriously, ignoring Annie’s.
The two live in a small British seaside village, where Annie runs the local museum. Duncan teaches a film studies class at the local university. Annie is obsessed with the local history, but whenever her and Duncan talk she can’t get a word in edgewise. Tucker Crowe sucks up all the oxygen in any conversation they have, including the one Annie wants to have about changing her mind about wanting kids. She would go crazy if not for her devoted and gay sister Ros (Lily Brazier). While the two may not look like sisters, they seem like sisters, which is a rarer feat in films like Juliet, Naked. The two are brutally honest with each other while also ferociously having each other’s back.
Tamara Jenkins, Jim Taylor, Phil Alden Robinson, and Evgenia Peretz adapted the book of the same name by Nick Hornby. More than any other author of his generation, Hornby, understands the obsessive relationship we have with the art, media, or sports we love. Nowadays we would call it fandom. Normally when you read about die-hard fans, something feels off. The way they talk about things seems forced.
But Hornby writes from his own passionate obsessed soul. High Fidelity, Fever Pitch, and About A Boy all deal with middle-aged men struggling to understand how to still be a “fan” and also a functioning human being. The quartet of writers who adapted the book have somehow, all of them, captured Hornby’s voice perfectly.
When Duncan rants on and on about Tucker Crowe, it’s a familiar rant. Swap out “Tucker Crowe” with an actual musician, a sports team, or the newest ship paring, and you’d have a rant akin to a Tumblr post. But Hornby and the writers don’t have any malice in their barbs or hearts for these characters. Which is not to say they are not brutally honest.
Part of the myth of Tucker Crowe is that he disappeared after his first and last album Juliet was published. His fans, Duncan included, have theorized what could have happened and where he might be now. Most of which imagine him as some sort of mad recluse holed up in a studio working on his second album.
One of the charms of Juliet, Naked is how Jesse Peretz, the director, scores the movie. He uses “actual” Tucker Crowe songs as well as some other pop favorites. But the Tucker songs sound like something from the alternative rock period of the nineties. Peretz, much like Hornby, understands the deep well of affection and knowledge fans can have of their chosen obsession.
One day, Duncan receives a small package. Annie opens it without thinking. Inside is a CD of a stripped down acoustic recording of Tucker Crowe’s album. Juliet, Naked is written on the CD in permanent marker. Angry and a little tipsy at Duncan, Annie listens to the album. She hates it.
When Duncan finds out she listened to the album first, he is furious. It’s a petulant fury—one borne of entitlement and a belief that she is not a “fan.” While Duncan stomps around the house looking for batteries for his portable CD player he lashes out at Annie. She angrily takes her vibrator, takes the batteries out, and throws them at him.
Has there ever been a more perfect visual encapsulation of how women are portrayed in stories? A woman sacrificing her long-term satisfaction for a man’s short-term “need.” It might be the most pervasive and disgusting trope in storytelling. But Juliet, Naked is aware of this.
Duncan claims the acoustic version is a masterwork. Annie finds it “dreary.” She writes a scathing review and posts it on Duncan’s forum. I found this befitting of a woman who would look her husband dead in the eyes as she tossed her vibrator batteries at him. Annie and Duncan’s relationship had begun to fissure long before Juliet, Naked arrived in their post. But now the cracks begin to become all too noticeable.
Annie receives an email from Tucker Crowe himself. He congratulates her on her searing rebuke of the “Tucker Crowe the genius” mythos. She is understandably skeptical. The two fall into a sort of pen pal confessional. Slowly we begin to understand the man Duncan has been obsessing over. Or rather, we see who he actually is.
Peretz never judges the characters. Hawke’s Tucker is a man who has realized only too late the consequences of his actions. A father of many children, he tries to take care of them all. His children would rather have him. Peretz and his writers never judge, though. But not judging him does not mean we ourselves are not allowed to judge.
After Annie discovers Duncan had an affair with a co-worker, she kicks him out. “You cheated on me because I didn’t have the correct response to an album!” Tucker and Annie begin to slowly, tentatively, tumble into a relationship. Annie visits Tucker in the hospital because of his daughter Lizzie’s (Ayoola Smart) pregnancy. She realizes that while they have shared a great many emails, it doesn’t mean she knows or understands Tucker any more than Duncan does.
Juliet, Naked is a charming and smart romantic comedy. The characters all have sharp wits but the wit is a believable one. Sometimes screenwriters imbue their characters with a sort of fantastical Oscar Wilde-esque tongue. It takes a special talent to make one’s characters believable witty.
Tucker confesses to Annie about Jackson (Azhy Robertson), his latest son. He tells her Jackson is meant as an attempt to make up for his past sins. Annie shakes her head, “That’s a lot of pressure for a little guy.”
Peretz and his writers allow for complexity and jagged edges for his characters. When Duncan discovers Annie is dating his idol, he is both hurt and filled with the desperate desire to meet him. Duncan sitting down to eat with Annie, Tucker, and Jackson is one of my favorite scenes in the movie.
The conversation quickly turns to Duncan praising Tucker for his genius. But he also presumes to understand Tucker because Duncan has spent hours pouring over the verses to his song. Tucker rips into Duncan for thinking he knows him. Just because Duncan knows every word to Tucker’s album doesn’t mean he understands the decisions Tucker has made in his life.
How can he? Tucker barely knows why he’s done the things he’s done. Duncan responds with a monologue about how “art doesn’t belong just to the artist.” Annie, who knows both men, tries to call a peace. She understands, as do we, where they are both coming from. The scene is fascinating not just because of the conversation about complex relationships between artists and their fans. Underneath all that is the realization that all three characters come to almost simultaneously. We spend so much of our lives presuming to know people we barely know at all.
Peretz and his cameraman Remi Adefarasin frame Byrne, Hawke, and O’Dowd, with love and precision. The characters are staged in scenes, it seems, by the space they feel growing between them. Their positions reflect the distance in their relationship. Adefarasin mutes the color palette but somehow doesn’t make Juliet, Naked dreary. Instead, he creates an atmosphere of a soothing mediation.
Much like Crazy Rich Asians, Juliet, Naked is a reminder that the romantic comedy genre is a vital and vibrant genre ripe for a resurgence. The characters look and talk like people we know in real life, sometimes too much so. Juliet, Naked is a lovely little movie about people who wish to be loved and understood.