Film critic Scott Wilson reviews the latest in the resurgent rom-com genre starring Rose Byrne, Ethan Hawke, and Chris O’Dowd
Juliet, Naked – ★★★☆☆
2018 is a banner year for the rom-com, with the likes of Set It Up, Crazy Rich Asians, and To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before scratching an itch no one knew was there. At a time of such social tension, it’s no surprise films about falling in love are providing a temporary balm from all the hate. This modern iteration of a timeless genre has been distinctly sincere too, providing a relief from irony and cynicism, instead celebrating a widescreen type of love. Maybe all of these happily-ever-afters are a little too perfect, making them more escapist fantasies than entirely believable, but hey – lighten up!
Juliet, Naked doesn’t have the element of surprise on its side, nor the significance of representation, but it continues the pleasant resurgence capably enough. Rose Byrne plays Annie who lives with her long-term boyfriend, Chris O’Dowd’s Duncan. He’s obsessed with an elusive rock star, Tucker Crowe played by Ethan Hawke, who found success years ago with a touching album called Juliet before disappearing into obscurity. Duncan runs a website dedicated to his music as well as theories about where Crowe has been ever since, paying him more attention than he does Annie.
After he receives a demo in the post called ‘Juliet, Naked’, Annie, frustrated, posts a review on Duncan’s website dismissing its significance. Crowe – unaware Annie’s partner runs the site – contacts her, agreeing. They strike up a conversation, while Duncan continues his love affair right into another love affair.
In its following of the rules of a rom-com, it adheres to a fault, doomed to disappear among the many others that didn’t aim high either.
You already know where this is going. As is often the case in rom-coms, the journey is pivotal if the destination is so blatantly obvious. Adapted from Nick Hornby’s novel of the same name, the journey is rather bizarre, never fully explaining why Crowe would bother to respond to any review of his work, or why he’s shown to be destitute while simultaneously able to afford a transatlantic flight for him and his son.
A lot of forgiveness is required to get on board. A late-in-the-day musical performance is so far-fetched it stretches the limits of tolerability, and some other, far more interesting, elements are pushed to the side. Crowe is the most magnetic character, Hawke perfectly straddling charming and pathetic while looking for forgiveness. His many children by many women have led him to a post-career crisis, an absent father who assumes he is rightfully hated.
The film mostly ignores this for Annie’s ambling bemusement. It tries to balance the idea that making no mistakes in your life is just as bad as making many, but then plays the story terribly safe. The stakes are higher for Crowe to come to terms with who he is than they are for Annie to take some control of her life, and yet the latter is what the film cares most about.
It’s left feeling a little twee, but such is the occasional failings of the genre. Like Crazy Rich Asians would have had more of a narrative impact had Rachel Chu washed her hands of the lavish wealth, Juliet, Naked would have had more meat on its bones if Annie’s inactivity was framed as a mistake rather than the absence of having made any.
Which means we are free to experience the film from a more pleasant – and guilt-free – position, never threatened with tearing up or elation, or made to confront our own inactivity, or feel much of anything. It’s a leisurely stroll through an English seaside town, combined with a wish-fulfilment scenario where a lousy partner finally gives an excuse to kick them to the kerb at the same time an enigmatic Ethan Hawke shows up trying to make amends with life.
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But in that central question – how do you strike the perfect balance between making some mistakes, but not too many? – is the quiet profundity rom-coms thrive on. It’s why the film focuses on Annie because it’s about getting out there and making your mark on the world instead of letting it pass you by. It’s as cinematic as a card from Clintons, but that doesn’t make it unworthy. In its following of the rules of a rom-com, it adheres to a fault, doomed to disappear among the many others that didn’t aim high either.
Despite its middle-of-the-road aims, it’s an unchallenging watch, something there is a place for. Hawke imbues an aging star with a youthful swagger like Reality Bites happened only yesterday. Rose Byrne passes as a small-town no-one-in-particular despite being a legitimate Hollywood star. Chris O’Dowd is refreshingly unsympathetic, when his everyman shtick has been his selling point thus far, a nice change of pace for someone usually so likable.
With the talent involved, and hints towards more inspiring narrative strands, Juliet, Naked ought to be better than it is. But it’s no failure either, satisfying a kind of Sunday-afternoon watch, where the most aggressive label it can be given is ‘pleasant.’ On to the next rom-com.