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No Juliet, No Nudity, Just Humor

Ethan Hawke
Ethan Hawke
 105 Minutes
Directed by: Jesse Peretz
Starring: Rose Byrne, Ethan Hawke  
Juliet, Naked

The Internet has brought people with shared albeit highly unusual interests together in ways that would have been completely unimaginable even a generation ago. Back then, the fans of an obscure American rock singer named Tucker Crowe who abruptly vanished from public view would have lived out their lives completely unaware of the presence of similarly dedicated followers of the musician living in such far-off places as a small seaside English town, and a movie like Juliet, Naked would have been unimaginable. But that was then, and this is now, and those couple of hundred of dedicated Crowe followers can connect with each other and produce a rather charming romantic comedy.


Self-obsessed college professor Duncan Thomson (Chris O’Dowd) is the self-proclaimed world’s greatest expert on Crowe and his music and has turned a room in the basement of the house he shares with girlfriend Annie Platt (Rose Byrne) into a shrine dedicated to Crowe (see clip below). In addition to being obsessed with Crowe, Duncan is a mooching, uncaring jerk who has an affair just because the other woman likes Crowe’s music more than Annie does. The final straw that breaks up the dysfunctional couple is a demo tape entitled “Juliet, Naked” (“Juliet” was Crowe’s then-girlfriend whom he named his first album after) that Crowe sends anonymously to Duncan. Annie listens to the tape before Duncan can and is not overly impressed, writing a rather harsh review and posting it on Duncan’s Crowe fan site.


The review catches the attention of Crowe (Ethan Hawke), who admires Annie’s honestly and strikes up an e-mail correspondence with her. He has pretty much been a slacker since he quit recording, living a rather meager existence off his royalties while impregnating and walking out on a number of women. The only one of his children Crowe is close to is his youngest. Jackson (Azhy Robertson). However, after developing a rapport with Annie, he takes Jackson with him on a trip to England, both to meet Annie and to try to get closer with another one of his children, pregnant daughter Lizzie (Ayoola Smart).


Crowe’s visit comes at a very opportune time for Annie, since she has finally given Duncan the heave-ho after he confessed his affair to her and was surprised that she didn’t merely accept the news. Eventually, Crowe and Jackson accompany Annie to her hometown, to the extreme shock and displeasure of Duncan, once he realizes just who Annie’s new boyfriend is. On her part, Annie has to take stock of her life and decide if there’s a possible future with Crowe and, if not, just what she should do.


Juliet, Naked is based on a novel by Nick Hornby, whose High Fidelity and About a Boy dealt with both the music world and the world of immature, self-centered male jerks. So, it’s no surprise that both Duncan and Crowe exhibit these characteristics to a certain extent, and the typical romantic comedy dilemma of a heroine having to choose between a Mr. Right and a Mr. Wrong is far more complicated here. Duncan pretty clearly is Mr. Wrong, but Crowe, although being a much nicer (not to mention sexier) guy, is far from Mr. Right.


Juliet, Naked may not involve a classic romantic triangle, but it is a triangle nonetheless and one viewed mostly through the perspective of Annie, the woman in the middle trying to sort out her life and essentially start over as she nears 40. Although Hornby adopted the same narrative technique in his novel as the script does here, it proves to be somewhat problematic, as Annie, who is quite likable, comes across as too much of a milk toast, lacking a whole lot of character or backbone. As often happens in films like this, Rose Byrne’s Annie is easily overshadowed in the early scenes by O’Dowd, and director Jesse Peretz hasn't mastered the art of turning a long distance romance into compelling drama, the way Nora Ephron did so well in Sleepless in Seattle. As a result, Annie’s relationship with Crowe lacks any real spark until the two actually meet, and the first 45 minutes or so of the movie has a tendency to drift.


Once Crowe arrives in London, however, Juliet, Naked comes to life with a bang, or, more accurately, a heart attack that Crowe suffers when trying to look in on Lizzie in the hospital. Crowe finds himself in that same hospital, eventually surrounded by Annie, Jackson, and a host of other ex-wives, ex-girlfriends, and children. The eventual chaos results in the funniest scene in the entire movie, one that increases the film’s energy level considerably. From there, Ethan Hawke and Rose Byrne keep the momentum going, as she mulls over the romantic possibilities with Crowe.


With the exception of the aforementioned hospital scene and one or two others, Juliet, Naked eschews the over-the-top silliness typical of many romantic comedies. Of course, Duncan is somewhat buffoonish, but director Jesse Peretz keeps his reactions, and, indeed, most of the interactions in the movie rather low key. This is a movie that elicits numerous chuckles and smiles, but very few belly laughs.


With two male leads (and possible romantic partners) for Annie, the screenplay (which is credited to four different writers) takes Hornby’s typical immature male and splits the bad personality traits between Duncan and Crowe. Of course, that makes Duncan an obviously wrong choice for Annie, which he reinforces even more after he sees her with Crowe, but Crowe is far from perfect, albeit a considerably nicer guy. Crowe’s inability to take any responsibility in his life is apparent from the moment the audience meets him. It’s to the credit of the source material that Juliet, Naked does not opt for a typical copout happy ending, instead arriving at one that will please the audience but not pander.


Not having read the novel, I can’t say whether the relatively slow pace of the first half of Juliet, Naked can be attributed to the source material, or, merely to the screenwriters’ and Peretz’s treatment. In either event, the end result is somewhat of a lesser Hornby adaptation than his earlier films were. Still, with three solid veterans as the leads, and a good feel for the music industry (director Peretz is a former musician), the movie is still quite entertaining, especially towards the end. Hopefully, this film won’t have to wait 30 years to be discovered by moviegoers.

In this clip, Ethan Hawke wonders how serious Rose Byrne's feelings for him are.

Read other reviews of Juliet, Naked: 

Juliet, Naked (2018) on IMDb