I’m “biast” (con): nothing
I have not read the source material
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
So I knew in advance that Juliet, Naked — ugh, that title! — is about a rock star and a fan, and I was bracing myself: This is gonna be some neurotic crap about a mopey guy musician and his manic-pixie muse, isn’t it? But thank god, it is nothing of the sort. Quite the opposite, in fact. This is a mocking of the sort of obsessive geekiness, by men, that is quick to label morose and overwrought art — by men, of course — “genius.” This is a confrontation — astonishingly, a gentle one, and a far more generous one than it could have been — between fan and artist, between appreciation and the creativity looked upon in awe, between the legend that fans crave and the mundane, even pathetic reality behind it. Even the title of the film is in on the joke. Everything I was afraid Juliet, Naked would be is precisely the kind of nonsense it has no time for.
Tucker Crowe is the Thomas Pynchon of American indie rock: a couple of allegedly brilliant albums in the 1990s, and then he disappeared, literally walked away from it all right in the middle of a performance in a club. These days, he is the subject of intense rumor… at least among a small cadre of fanatical devotees, including Duncan, professor of film and TV at a small college in an English seaside town and proprietor of a Web site and forum devoted to Tucker’s work and the mystery of where he has been all these years. And now, Duncan scores a nerd coup when he comes into possession of previously unheard demo recordings of Tucker’s most famous album, Juliet, which was supposedly sparked by a bad breakup and may or may not be mopey manic pixie–inspired stuff. (We hear only brief snippets of it.)
But this isn’t Duncan’s story: it’s the story of Annie, his girlfriend (and soon becomes Tucker’s story, too). The arrival of Juliet, Naked — as the collection of musical rough sketches is unofficially dubbed — in Duncan’s adoringly Crowe-dork psyche is the last straw for Annie’s tolerance for Duncan’s all-consuming fanboy hobby. She has a reaction to the music — and to Duncan’s reaction to the music — that, well, has a lot to say about the OCD-ish completism of the most fannish of fans, and about how maybe we don’t need to know absolutely everything about how the creative sausage gets made. And about how women will put off their own needs and defer their own desires and deny to themselves that they’re in a rut until the person they are deferring to and denying for finally takes his — almost always his — taking-for-granted a step too far.
Rose Byrne (Peter Rabbit, X-Men: Apocalypse), as Annie, is the core of why Juliet, Naked works so well. Her usual — and underappreciated — onscreen persona of flinty yet somehow sad resignation has never been put to better use. So many women are going to identify with her acquiescence to a just-about-okay life… and then will revel in her decision to grab just a little bit more life for herself. Her bittersweet charm turns Annie’s oh-so-relatable long-suffering and patience into a kind of muted magic, of the sort that needs to be a template for more women, to stop living for other people and start living for themselves. Annie is a quiet hero.
Beautifully, though, Juliet never renders Duncan as a villain, which perhaps isn’t surprising: this is based on a novel by Nick Hornby, and in any other Hornby story (see also High Fidelity, About a Boy, Fever Pitch), Duncan would be the center of attention, and of our sympathy. That’s not the case here, but Chris O’Dowd (Molly’s Game, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children) plays him with more compassion than perhaps he deserves; the actor’s easy everyguy allure remains irresistible even as it becomes increasingly clear that Duncan is one of those dime-a-dozen self-centered men who’s nowhere near as fascinating or as deep as he thinks he is, and who doesn’t realize that his fixations are blinding him to real life around him. Duncan becomes a bit of a tragic anti-hero, which he maybe eventually realizes, though too late. Or maybe he’s an irredeemable dork. Either way, I did end up feeling a smidge more sorry for him than he warrants.
And then there’s Tucker, played by Ethan Hawke (Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, The Magnificent Seven), giving perhaps the most Ethan Hawke performance ever as the most Ethan Hawke character ever. Tucker is an even more Hornby-esque protagonist than Duncan would be (though Tucker’s story is not as central as Annie’s): a charming, glorious mess of a man, self-aware and self-deprecating, and weighed down by many — so many — bad decisions in his past. As he enters the orbit of Annie and Duncan’s relationship, in a way that only fandom in the Internet age could allow, he becomes the embodiment of everything that has come between them… which is ironic, because he is, of course, absolutely nothing like Duncan has imagined him. Tucker’s path through their lives adds another layer of confrontation for the movie, one between a past full of regret and the possibility of a happier future.
Along the way, Juliet, Naked sidesteps all the potential clichés of romantic dramedy. It never lets its snark get mean: it’s funny and pointed yet always tender and big-hearted. This is a new instant comfort movie for me, and that’s not a thing that happens frequently. I hope you love it as much as I do.