Review by Jacquelin Hipes
In many ways, Juliet, Naked follows the quintessential romantic-comedy formula. It features a clueless boyfriend and his long-suffering girlfriend, a kind stranger who unwittingly shows said girlfriend what she’s missing out on, and just the right amount of serendipitous coincidences to slot everyone precisely where they belong by the time the credits roll.
It is also delightfully charming.
Annie (Rose Byrne) has been running the small museum in her British seaside hometown since its last proprietor, her father, took ill over fifteen years ago. Those years are also distinguished—or not—by her relationship with long-term boyfriend Duncan (Chris O’Dowd), a pop culture lecturer at a nearby university. Although he has a penchant for comparing The Wire to Sophocles’ Antigone, his true obsession is obscure rock singer Tucker Crowe (Ethan Hawke), who vanished in the middle of a gig twenty years ago and never reappeared in the public eye. In addition to filling an entire room with memorabilia from Crowe’s brief career, he runs a fan site devoted to conspiracy theories covering every aspect of the singer’s life.
When Annie opens his mail one day to find an early, pre-release recording of Crowe’s only album—the titular Juliet, Naked—she listens to it before Duncan gets home. The resulting temper tantrum over her “betrayal” comes to a head with Annie replying to Duncan’s glowing fan site review with her own, less kind impressions. This pointedly ambivalent response earns the attention of Tucker himself, who begins an e-mail correspondence with Annie from his less-than-glamorous abode in America. They bond not over music or his fame, but a shared disappointment and bewilderment over how their lives have unfolded, with no minor amount of chemistry brewing as they each divulge secrets from behind the safety of a glowing screen.
Even though genre clichés abound, the screenplay by Evgenia Peretz, Jim Taylor, and Tamara Jenkins keeps the characters grounded and, for the most part, self-aware. Dispensing with theatrics, it contents itself with the improbable-yet-charming series of events that bring together Annie and Tucker and lets matters unfold rather naturally from there. It’s heavy on the laughs and extraordinarily light on sappy moments, although the presence of Tucker’s children—the grown Lizzie (Ayoola Smart) and the young Jackson (Azhy Robertson)—infuses things with a welcome bit of heart.
All three leads handle the emotional and comedic material equally well. O’Dowd was a fine choice for the dopey, self-important Duncan, always managing to squeeze in a sliver of sympathy between the posturing and adolescent obliviousness. Hawke’s washed-up, repentant former bad boy couldn’t be further from the distressed Reverend Toller in this year’s First Reformed, which isn’t a problem at all. He displays an equal knack for comedic timing here as he did dramatic timing in the former, relaxing into the role like a pair of Tucker’s well-worn jeans. Byrne also wisely underplays the morose Annie, normalizing her desire for children and a life just a little bigger than what she has. She’s a refreshingly capable and sane romantic lead, allowed to charm without much in the way of artifice.
Finally, Juliet, Naked even has something for the movie-goers who want to join in the summer shark craze, but are too squeamish for The Meg’s edible thrills, featuring multiple references to a pickled shark’s eye in the local museum, which astonishingly centers as the subject of more than one conversation in its run time. That still counts as a creature feature…right?
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