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Juliet, Naked plays like alternative takes on life

Rose Byrne and Ethan Hawke

By T.T. Stern-Enzi

Right from the start of this Jesse Peretz adaptation of Nick Hornby’s novel Juliet, Naked, there’s something warm and unfinished about the lives of Annie (Rose Byrne), Duncan (Chris O’Dowd), and Tucker Crowe (Ethan Hawke). We get caught up in the everyday details of their loosely shared worlds thanks to narrative voiceover from Annie. She’s sketching out her sad sack state of affairs—the settled comfort of a home that belonged to her father, a job at a small-town museum that was his hand-me-down passion project, and a lesbian sister (Denise Gough) who seems more adventurous, until you realize that she’s just a quirky fish in a fishbowl.

Annie’s got a fella—that would be Duncan, a pompous music and literature geek who would be loveable if he recognized how goofy he is. Duncan’s problem is that he takes himself and his interests far too seriously, to the point of being off-putting. His passion tips over into self-absorption and within minutes, we’re ready for him to receive a bit of well-deserved comeuppance.

Turns out Duncan’s got a deep and abiding man-crush on Tucker Crowe, a semi-famous musician who penned an album of quiet heartbreak decades ago and walked offstage during a tour appearance and never returned to the spotlight. The move triggered fevered fandom from Duncan and a cadre of like-minded adherents, full of wild speculation about what Tucker Crowe has been up to all of these years.

When the narrative perspective breaks free from Annie, we find out exactly what Tucker’s been doing, which is a whole lot of nothing. He’s been living in a converted detached garage behind the house of one of his exes. The long-term squat offers the benefit of proximity to his youngest son Jackson (Azhy Robertson) who clearly adores having his father around.

When an unreleased demo of Tucker Crowe’s seminal work dubbed Juliet, Naked winds up in Annie and Duncan’s mailbox, it is Annie who listens to it first, a sacrilegious move, at least to Duncan. She sinks into the songs, recognizing and responding to their unrefined qualities, but she pens an anonymously scathing review on Duncan’s fan blog, which catches the attention of the reclusive artist himself.

That Annie and Tucker hit it off, speaks less to the conventions of this kind of romantic comedy, than to the writing and interplay between Byrne and Hawke. The pair have few scenes together during this introductory phase, but each skillfully inserts themselves into the space of the other character, granting us the sense that Annie and Tucker would be right at home, forging this surprising friendship in the midst of their somewhat complicated lives.

The complexity exists far more in Tucker’s realm, a rambling sphere full of children of various ages and baby mamas. Tucker lived certain aspects of the rock star’s life to the fullest and remains a big kid at heart, but his chest obviously swells in the presence of his brood; unfortunately, it gets too big when Tucker and Jackson make an impromptu excursion to England to pay a visit to his expecting daughter Lizzie (Ayoola Smart).

All manner of miscommunication takes place, but it is the inevitable meeting between Tucker and Annie that brings everything to a head and paves the way for the intimate roundelay between the film’s main trio of characters. The screenwriters (Evgenia Peretz and Jim Taylor & Tamara Jenkins) and the helming Peretz give us exactly what’s anticipated, but nothing feels programmed. Instead, Annie, Duncan, and Tucker each gets their own moments, which feel like individual songs in a cycle, making up one side, then another of a curious variation on the rom-com theme.

Byrne and O’Dowd prove to be reliable as ever, managing the delicate balance between the laughs—both at and with their characters—and the dramatic elements that have a sneakily relatable power. But the real craft on display comes from Hawke who has grown into a subtle performer, especially in this kind of relaxed mode. He makes it look far too easy to waltz through these highly charged situations and appear unflappable, when the weight of the world rests so precariously on his shoulders. Hawke is in one of those sweet spots—having already offered such a stark contrast in the Paul Schrader feature First Reformed with his directorial effort Blaze soon to follow—where it seems as if we’re getting to know him all over again.

That’s quite a neat trick since he’s been around for so long already. Skipping from Dead Poets Society to Reality Bites to the Before trilogy with his Oscar-nominated turn in Training Day in the mix, it’s hard to say there’s ever been a time when he wasn’t before us. Yet, Juliet, Naked puts a new spin on the idea that there’s a same-old Ethan Hawke performance. He and his mates here are simply fleshing out this moment along a rather tuneful journey.

Rating: R

Grade: B+