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Juliet, Naked

“I’d just like to say — get a life, will you, people? I mean, for crying out loud, it’s just a TV show! […] You’ve turned an enjoyable little job that I did as a lark for a few years into a colossal waste of time! I mean, how old are you people? What have you done with yourselves? […] There’s a whole world out there!” –William Shatner (Saturday Night Live, aired 12/20/1986)

The premise of Juliet, Naked actually begins with “Juliet”, an album made by underground alt-rock musician Tucker Crowe (Ethan Hawke) and allegedly named after his ex-girlfriend. Tucker played around for a while in the ’90s, until he ran off in the middle of a concert for unknown reasons and completely disappeared from the public eye. So naturally, the man has developed a cult following in the years since, as a couple hundred fans all over the world gather online to deconstruct Crowe’s music, theorize about his life, and trade rumors about his whereabouts.

Which brings us to Duncan (Chris O’Dowd), the self-appointed leader of the Tucker Crowe Fan Club. The man is absolutely obsessed with Tucker Crowe, prides himself on being the world’s foremost authority on the underappreciated genius, and that makes him the world’s foremost champion of the indie musician that the ignorant masses couldn’t possibly appreciate. Duncan is thoroughly convinced that every single note Tucker Crowe ever played, every word Tucker Crowe ever wrote, is nothing short of heavenly perfection and any worthless philistine who’d disagree is in dire need of an hour-long diatribe at full volume.

And all of that is before Duncan cheats on his girlfriend. So, yeah, the guy is a hopeless loser.

The girlfriend, by the way, is the movie’s actual protagonist. Annie (Rose Byrne) has spent her entire life on a tiny little island somewhere in the UK. She’s never had any kids, she’s never been married, and she’s never had a job aside from running the museum she inherited from her father. She’s a woman who’s simply drifted through life, without the chance to experience much of the world outside the island, so she has to settle for dating a manbaby who doesn’t want kids, a productive life, or anything that doesn’t have to do with Tucker goddamn Crowe.

So yeah, it’s kind of a mercy that Duncan cheated and gave Annie an excuse to dump his ass. But not before one last kick in the pants for them both.

See, Duncan was able to get his hands on an elusive copy of “Juliet, Naked”, the acoustic demo recordings of the songs that would eventually become the “Juliet” album. So, it’s an unfinished version of an album that’s been finished and publicly available for two decades, from an artist that nobody remembers. Of course Duncan is the only one who could possibly care about this, so Annie writes a negative review online just to take the piss.

In response, somebody sends Annie an e-mail to say that she was absolutely right in panning “Juliet, Naked” and every single point she made was perfectly on the mark. And who sent the e-mail? Tucker Crowe himself, in the flesh.

Tucker and Annie start up a penpal relationship, to Duncan’s blissful ignorance, and the two of them bond over how they’ve both wasted the past couple decades of their respective lives. In Tucker’s case, it turns out that he’s mostly been fucking up one relationship after another. By now, he’s got half a dozen kids from roughly five different mothers, and those are just the ones we know about. There may very well be more, as not all of them have even met their biological father (or want to) and not all of the siblings know of each other’s existence.

Couple that with the heavy drinking, reckless drug use, and financial mishaps of Tucker’s past, and it’s clear that the man has a long, long list of past mistakes that keep coming back to fuck him over. Though of course that doesn’t stop Tucker from trying to slow things down and hit the “reset” button in any way he can. Right now, that means moving into his ex’s garage so he can help raise their son — his youngest child, name of Jackson (Azhy Robertson).

I won’t go into details because the story’s already long enough, but suffice to say that the filmmakers contrive a reason for Tucker to come to London so our two romantic leads can finally meet in person. Hilarity ensues.

We’ll start with the negatives, because there’s certainly a lot about this movie not to like. There’s a ton of lazy exposition by way of voice-over, though at least that’s excused by the premise of international penpals. I take far greater issue with the lazy and predictable plot, featuring development arcs flatter than Kansas. It certainly doesn’t help that the movie hints at so many possible storylines and ultimately does nothing with them.

Case in point: Lizzie Crowe (Ayoola Smart) seems especially hurt by her delinquent father’s numerous dalliances and all the siblings she might never know she has, and I kept waiting to see her reaction to the prospect of Annie as yet another brokenhearted-baby-mama-in-waiting. It never comes up. The two characters barely meet each other, and I don’t think Lizzie ever even mentions Annie in passing. Oh, and there’s also the moment in which Jackson is standing in front of Duncan’s old shrine to Tucker Crowe, Jackson’s first glimpse of the long and storied life that his father once had. Except that all we get are a couple of wordless seconds and nothing else.

Yet easily the greatest example concerns Grace, Tucker’s firstborn child. The movie spends a lot of time building up this storyline, showing how Tucker is so terrified of reaching out to her, and the reasons why are appropriately huge. But when Tucker finally confronts this giant gaping hole in his past, the moment is presented without any kind of closure. Quite the contrary, it blows Tucker’s development wide open. While the scene is superbly written and elegantly acted, it raises so many questions about what Tucker thinks about this and how he’ll react, none of which are ever followed up on.

Even so, nothing drags down this movie like its hackneyed and tone-deaf attempts at comic relief. One example is the “sassy gay best friend” character, actually Annie’s sister Ros, played by Lily Brazier. Ros dresses like she’s in a Pride Parade. She forcibly reminds us with literally every single word of dialogue that she’s gay. She’s constantly bouncing between girlfriends, she mouths off to everyone, and she’s consistently irresponsible. Ros plays into every “goofball comic relief” stereotype and every lesbian stereotype as if it’s funny, but it’s not — it’s just a pile of cliched shit from an obnoxious fiber-loving bull. Another example is the town mayor (played by Michael Chapman), a pathological liar whose every word comes out of his ass. I wasn’t laughing, I just wanted to strangle the pompous blowhard.

But of course the most prominent comic relief character is Duncan himself, who goes through pretty much the entire movie like… well, he’s basically playing this the whole time. I know that Chris O’Dowd has played so many inhumanly clownish characters who only exist to be punching bags, and it pains me when I know he’s so much better than this material. But then Duncan finally, inevitably meets Tucker Crowe in person.

Duncan thought he knew everything there was to know about Tucker Crowe because he knew every rumor and fan theory, and all of it came to nothing because he never really knew shit about Tucker or his life. The guy devoted his entire being to an album he thought was a masterpiece and an artist he thought was a genius, though Tucker himself knows for a fact that he was never anyone special and the album was only a flash in the pan at best. The whole time Duncan was chasing after Tucker Crowe, holding him up as the ultimate example of the unsung genius, how many other underground indie artists could Duncan have found and championed in that same amount of time? Hell, Duncan could have put all that time and energy into literally anything else and his life might have been so much better. Even so, while the artist and his biggest fan disagree on the music’s relevance to the world, the fact remains that the music was relevant to Duncan, and nobody can take that away from him. Then again, when Tucker Crowe’s music played such a huge part in Duncan’s life and Duncan’s life is still a miserable shitshow… well, what does that say?

It’s a wonderful scene, and O’Dowd makes a meal of it. Even so, it’s still not enough to redeem the character.

But this brings me to this movie’s greatest strength: Its heart. Yes, there’s a lot of stuff in here about the relevance of art. It’s wonderful, but not as powerful as the movie’s greater statements about life. It’s a romance between a man with a long and tumultuous history he’s constantly trying to live down, and a woman who wishes that she had the highs and lows that came with an eventful life. Tucker’s been worn down after so many years of siring kids who hate him, but Annie’s there to remind him of how lucky he is to even have kids who are happy and healthy. Meanwhile, Annie is a blank slate who can offer Tucker the closest thing to a “reset” button he’s ever likely to get. And she gets along great with Jackson, which is another plus.

The two romantic leads get a lot from each other, developing their mutual affection in ways that advance the movie’s themes of love, life, loss, and so on. Additionally, while letting the first half drag was a significant gamble, it pays dividends in time spent establishing the characters and letting their long-distance relationship grow naturally. And of course it helps that Rose Byrne and Ethan Hawke turn in perfectly charming performances with effortless chemistry.

(Side note: It’s curious to note that the movie was written and directed by two pairs of couples. Two of the writers were the husband/wife pair of Jim Taylor and Tamara Jenkins. The third writer is Evgenia Peretz, the sister of director Jesse Peretz.)

Juliet, Naked is certainly not a bad movie. The themes are potent, the cast is solid, and the central romance is all aces. Somebody put a lot of effort into developing our two main characters, which makes it enjoyably easy to fall in love with watching them fall in love. Such a damn shame the filmmakers didn’t put that level of nuance and care into the comic relief. If only the filmmakers hadn’t given so much time to these obnoxious and overblown, cliched and annoying, boorish and paper-thin comic relief characters, we might have had more time to explore the avenues of character development that the movie briefly hints at and promptly drops. And this, in turn, might have led to a more creative and engaging plot than we ultimately got.

I really hate to hate on this film. The central romance is extremely engaging, and that makes an incalculable difference in salvaging a romance movie. And this is a perfectly good little romantic dramedy, I want to stress that, but it’s so aggravating to know that this could have been something truly great with maybe another screenplay draft or two. As it is, the movie’s just a harmless romantic trifle, good enough to look into but not worth going out of your way for.

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