Ethan Hawke is at an intriguing place in his career. Increasingly something of an indie tastemaker with his choices in roles, Hawke’s transition to character actor has found him a long way round to confirming his early ‘90s cred of a Generation X movie star. Which makes his casting in Juliet, Naked something akin to perfect. For here is a Gen-X rock star god from decades past whose presence, even before his arrival on screen, is carried as either an idol or albatross by all the other characters from that same era—and the weight of it makes them each a poster child of their certain age.
Hence the beguiling charm of Juliet, Naked, a sweet and romantic daydream about what happens when you meet your hero—as well as the laconic good cheer and poignant sadness that can be derived from such modern adulation. For Annie (Rose Byrne) is the bright and neglected girlfriend of the snobbish Duncan (Chris O’Dowd), whom she’s lived with for 15 years. While Annie is vaguely content with her seaside English town existence, and working at the local museum, she quietly regrets a marriage without wedding bells or children to a man who would rather spend his nights online discussing his teenage hero with other 40-somethings on the internet. You see, Duncan needs to be with people who also pray at the altar of Tucker Crowe (Hawke).
Crowe was a rock star for a year and change in the early ‘90s, releasing a cult-worshipped album named Juliet before disappearing off the face of the earth. And rather than look to a future with Annie, the academic and tenured Duncan is obsessing over tracking down Crowe’s early and unfinished versions of Juliet. It’s a collection of songs that Duncan and his disciples call Juliet, Naked. Yet when he finally gets them, Annie sees them for what they are: unfinished mediocrities compared to the real things. When she writes as much online, she puts her relationship in hot water… and attracts internet interest from the real Tucker Crowe.
A delicious setup for a slight trifle of romantic comeuppance, soon an email courtship worthy of Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks blossoms between Tucker and Annie, and he’s on a plane to England. The rock god is about to have a second coming before his most faithful fanatic, plus a woman who actually appreciates him. Still, he is neither god, nor is this film only the sugar rush of Duncan enjoying that epiphay. The man who vanished has plenty of reasons to self-deprecate. For example, other than his tagging along son Jackson (Azhy Robertson), his fifth child by four different women, he’s proven to be as lousy a father as a self-promoter.
Directed by Jesse Peretz and adapted from a Nick Hornby novel of the same name, Juliet, Naked maintains qualities of both the filmmaker and the author, yet is aided most fastidiously by its casting. Byrne is often an underrated talent who enjoys the ability to switch between comedy and drama, action and horror, with relative ease. And she brings a beaming brilliance to Annie who could have easily been played as a sadder or more mawkish heroine. Byrne, on the other hand, proves Annie can be dissatisfied while always staying a satisfying anchor in her own right. She ultimately drives the film as a woman finally going after what she wants, even though the two men she has wonderful chemistry with are unfortunate monuments to the current rise of man-child demands.
When Juliet, Naked was first published by Hornby in 2009, a near universal malaise of arrested development hadn’t seeped into the complete ocean of pop culture. Duncan and Tucker, in different ways, are descendants from other Hornby protagonists of page and screen from the likes of High Fidelity and About a Boy, yet these latest characters who refuse to grow up and let go of childish things have aged past adolescence or even early adulthood, and are now comfortably middle-aged. There’s something acutely knowing about Duncan being a college professor, suggesting that the obsessive drive of some academia isn’t that different than online forum chatter about beacons of eternal youth. Duncan is the visage of respectability that petulance has taken, and O’Dowd takes that and runs with it.
Hawke, by contrast, plays a man who just couldn’t grow up and now realizes that his son Jackson, and perhaps a burgeoning relationship with Annie, are a last chance to be more than the guy who wrote that one album. And the strength of Peretz’s approach to all three characters is he treats them each with empathy and degrees of even defensiveness. As the filmmakers behind Our Idiot Brother, Jesse Peretz and his co-writer/producer sister, Evgenia Peretz, understand the appeal of well-meaning fools, and consequently thread a tender romantic triangle between the three adult players who are trying to figure out where the hell all that time went.
The result is a breezy and affectionate comedy of manners, if not a necessarily demanding one unto itself. Mind you it is about folks whose mannerisms are defined by a new world built on online culture and echoes of Gen-X glories. Indeed, using images of Hawke from around his early mega indie successes of Reality Bites and Before Sunrise, the film shrewdly encapsulates the type of musical deity who might’ve had a song in those films. And as with Hawke’s other recent achievements, he and all the collaborators on Juliet, Naked offer a more human and appealingly messy alternative in 2018.
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