Don't mind the title; this movie is more pure than it sounds, I promise.
For fifteen years Annie (Rose Byrne) has put up with her boyfriend Duncan's (Chris O'Dowd) obsession with American rock star Tucker Crowe, who disappeared after releasing his first hit album, Juliet, in the 90's. Juliet, Naked is a demo version of said album that finds its way into Duncan's hands. Partway to get revenge for an argument, and partway because she finds the demo album boring, and exploitative of the original's success, Annie posts a scathing review on Duncan's fan site. Later she gets an email saying that she hit the nail on the head... that's signed Tucker Crowe.
|An almost You've Got Mail kind of premise but without all the waiting and the initial hating.|
And yes, Tucker is played by Ethan Hawke. He and Annie bond over email, describing their disappointing lives; Annie keeping their exchanges secret from Duncan, and Tucker juggling a life full of strained relationships that involves three ex-wives and five children. But this is a rom-com so eventually, when Tucker's London-resident daughter Lizzie (Ayoola Smart) makes him a granddad, they take the opportunity to meet. Then other circumstances allow for an extended stay.
The movie takes care to make its protagonists likable despite the growth they need. For example, Annie never cheats on Duncan; and Tucker is determined to maintain a good relationship with his youngest son Jackson (Azhy Robertson). His last chance to not mess something up, he says. And Annie herself longs to have children, in a refreshingly un-progressive turn. Her dynamic with Jackson is almost as cute as her and Tucker. And maybe it's the British rom-com thing to do, but everything feels so down-to-earth and realistic, but not at all in a cynical, "real-world grit" kind of way. It's just relatable, normal, life things. Except becoming pen-pals with a famous person of course.
|It's based on a novel, so maybe that's where it's unexpected depth without the weighty tone came from.|
My favorite is when Annie and Tucker meet in real life. It's awkward, yet not painful to watch, cut short and not screaming with unnecessary sexual tension. They really do become friends first. And in the inevitable scene where Tucker discovers that the weird guy who runs that fan-site of speculative misinformation was her boyfriend, things don't escalate like some rom-coms might push them to. No misunderstandings, no jumping to wild and angry conclusions for the sake of drama; just a character-driven relationship between two unlikely people.
Even Duncan isn't left out. One of the movie's best moments is the instance of Duncan meeting Tucker and not recognizing him. Also O'Dowd is the movie's most consistently hilarious aspect, but isn't tossed out once his usefulness to the plot is fulfilled. He even gets a few moments of poignancy, and I really liked what he had to say about art not being for the artist but for the consumer. Rose Byrne is as charming as ever, hitting comedy and drama equally well. And Ethan Hawke, always excellent, doesn't phone in because he's in a rom-com, and (with help from the script) turns his character into something fascinating and nuanced that you wouldn't expect.
|And he sings. They wrote songs for the Juliet album which we hear, and he sings Waterloo Sunset live. Like, I probably should have led with that, right? (there's even a soundtrack available!)|
The rom-com genre may be dead, but Juliet, Naked makes itself relevant and worthy -- by being devoted to its characters beyond the romance that can be fabricated between them; by effortlessly avoiding dead pitfalls of the genre; by not relying on comic shortcuts and cliches; and by still appealing to rom-com sensibilities by being sweet and romantic and leaving you happy and satisfied in the end. For my money they could have sold the ending even more, but they can't resist adding a little extra as the credits roll that adds extra satisfaction and one more laugh to the more abrupt indie-style end.
Don't get distracted by the odd title. Juliet, Naked is more than meets the eye.