Sundance Film Festival
Nick Hornby is practically a genre at this point, and if you were to ask me to tell you who made JULIET, NAKED, an excellent example of this particular quasi-genre, without looking at the credits or the production company’s logo, I would tell you it was made by Working Title in the late ‘90s and was probably directed by someone named Simon.
As it happens, the film actually was adapted from Hornby’s book by Tamara Jenkins, a damn fine writer, and Jim Taylor, another damn fine writer, and it was directed by Jesse Peretz, whose work so far has felt like a warm-up of sorts. This time out, he’s put it all together thanks to a great cast and that script, which is both exactly what you expect, and better than it needs to be.
Rose Byrne stars as Annie, a woman living in a small English coastal town with her boyfriend Duncan (Chris O’Dowd), who is a professor of media studies professionally while nurturing an all-consuming hobby as the leading expert on indie rock cult sensation Tucker Crowe (Ethan Hawke), who vanished at the height of his creative powers in the early ‘90s. Duncan runs a website about Tucker and the mystery of his disappearance, and he spends most of his free time and energy on the subject. Annie’s learned to live with it, but when a demo version of Tucker’s “masterpiece” shows up in the mail, it sets off a series of events that upends the comfortable life that Annie’s been leading.
Tucker Crowe is the perfect Nick Hornby character. If you’re familiar with his work, including About A Boy, Fever Pitch and High Fidelity, then you know that he’s exceptionally good at writing these man-children who are consumed by things. Here, Duncan is the one with the obsession, while Tucker is the actual obsession come to life. It’s like if soccer got to be a character in the original Fever Pitch, or if music was a character in High Fidelity. What’s crafty about Juliet, Naked is how quickly it reveals that Tucker has feet of clay, and he is nothing like the artistic ideal that Duncan’s built up in his mind. The different reactions that Annie and Duncan each have to that unfinished demo is what brings the real Tucker Crowe into their lives, and it’s interesting that it’s Annie who emerges as the lead character here. That feels like an evolution for Hornby as a storyteller, because for once, he’s not writing about how the man-child gets to grow up and get everything they want because the right woman came along to hold his hand and make him grow up. Duncan’s journey here is less interesting. Annie’s the one who has let herself settle for this person who barely pays attention to her and who funnels all of his attention into things and facts and opinions instead of the people in his life. It’s a way of never having to do anything emotionally difficult, and it’s so often rewarded by our pop culture that it feels quietly important to see this movie refute it.
Tucker is a bit of a disaster when he enters Annie’s life, and the film gradually peels back just how big that disaster really is. He’s got kids he’s left in other people’s lives all over the world, and when he meets Annie, he’s just busy trying to do right by Jackson (Azhy Robertson), his youngest. He has run from parenthood for most of his life, and even though he’s actively part of Jackson’s day to day, he’s still not really honest with himself about the scale of his own fuck-ups. It’s a rich role, and I hope people really pay attention to how good Ethan Hawke is here. He’s honest and relaxed and completely real here, and he makes a great match for Rose Byrne, who has grown into such an interesting actress and lead. She finds plenty of levity to play, but it’s not a joke, and she plays Annie’s growing dissatisfaction as a very real thing. So much of our culture is designed to tell women to play emotional support roles, that their role is to fix and nurture the men around them, and there’s a built-in subjugation there. Annie’s journey here, thank god, is not about whether she has to choose Tucker or Duncan. It’s more about her acceptance of the idea that there is a third option. For once, the guys are the ones doing the emotional labor for her, and she’s the one who walks out of the whole thing stronger for it.
Chris O’Dowd is good, as always. I feel like he’s the kind of guy who will always deliver if the material is there, in terms of both comedy and the drama. The supporting cast is solid overall, and Peretz does a nice job of building a sense of place in Annie’s small town. It never kicks into a sort of heightened eccentricity, overwhelming the tone of what they’re doing with the primary characters, and I appreciated that restraint. Peretz seems to be growing as a filmmaker, more in command of tonal changes. I thought he had real trouble with it on films like My Idiot Brother, but he’s got such a solid foundation in the form of the script that it gives him plenty of room to work.
Juliet, Naked is a handsomely made film, and Remi Adfarasin’s photography is as mainstream bright-and-spry as the score by Nathan Larson. Whoever ends up picking up this film could do very well with it commercially, especially if they’re honest about how much it’s Rose Byrne’s movie. For Hornby fans, this is familiar but enjoyable territory, and there’s a lot for general audiences to like, too. Don’t be surprised to see some real muscle behind this film when it finally hits theaters.
Running time: 105 minutes
Drew McWeeny | Chief Film Critic