Juliet, Naked Review: The Movie Equivalent of an EP
Juliet, Naked review: Another Nick Hornby novel gets the Hollywood treatment, but only some of the themes get adapted for the screen.
For the last decade or so (maybe longer) this time of year has proven to be one of the most interesting windows for film releases. The big summer blockbusters are done and the genre films of Halloween and Thanksgiving are still weeks and months away. It’s a great time for sleeper films to storm the box office and stick a finger in the eye of analysts – just look at Crazy Rich Asians, last year’s The Hitman Bodyguard, 2016’s Don’t Breathe, and on and on.
That makes this the ideal time for indie(ish) films with good casts and strong pedigrees to sneak up on people. So it’s no surprise that after debuting at Sundance in January, Juliet, Naked was withheld until now. Whether or not it can be in the discussion with those other films is a different story.
If you’ve heard about the film version of Juliet, Naked, you’re probably also heard that it’s based on a book by Nick Hornby, the guy who wrote the novels High Fidelity and About a Boy. Both films were adapted into films that can fairly be called cult classics, so the marketing has firmly tied his latest adaptation to him. So while it’s not really fair to compare director Jesse Peretz’s film Juliet, Naked to others that had a different cast, filmmakers, studio, etc., of course people are going to.
Juliet, Naked has a lot of the themes and plot points that will feel familiar to fans of the other Hornby films, but there are some key differences too. The biggest of which is that the other films managed to make some surprisingly deep points using clever dialogue and great performances, while Juliet Naked doesn’t. It does offer some solid performances and there are a few memorable lines, but the major themes fall to the sides in favor of less interesting, far more familiar tropes.
Like the other Hornby films, Juliet, Naked’s protagonist is stuck in something of a rut without even realizing it. Nearing her 40th birthday, Annie (Rose Byrne) is trapped in a job she never wanted, in a town she thought she escaped, and in a relationship with a man named Duncan (Chris O’Dowd) who seems to be more in love with an idea than with Annie.
When Duncan was a younger man, he became enamored with an album from an alt-rocker named Tucker Crowe (Ethan Hawke). Crowe never had the success Duncan and others thought he deserved, and following his disappearance from the spotlight, some of his fans became more obsessed. It wasn’t long until the mystery became legend, and the legend became an internet conspiracy theory. And like fans of any really good TV show canceled too soon can tell you, the less there is, the more potential that what could have been would have been amazing.
Thanks to Duncan’s obsession and his Crowe fan-website, Annie accidentally gains the attention of Tucker himself through some harsh criticism. He then reaches out to her via email, and the two soon strike up a friendship. When Annie finds herself single for the first time in years, her relationship with Tucker begins to bloom into something more, even as Tucker’s past indiscretions continue to haunt him.
Hawke’s performance is solid as a talented musician running from his past, but Byrne is the heart and soul of Juliet, Naked. She carries things with charm and charisma. Annie doesn’t quite have the quirkiness of some of Hornby’s other protagonists, but Byrne fills in a lot of the gaps. O’Dowd has what is arguably the most impressive and the most disappointing role.
O’Dowd himself steals most of the scenes he is in, and the character of Duncan is interesting, if not always likable. Some of the best moments in the film are when the obsessed Duncan meets his idol Tucker, pitting idealized versions of people against reality. It’s a compelling idea, but soon enough this thread is essentially forgotten in favor of another pair of tropes familiar to Hornby’s stories – an almost unromantic love story and an unusually remarkably child (tucker’s youngest son). Hornby has a thing about ultra intelligent and empathetic kids.
So you have a story that is all set up to explore the nature of fandom and even celebrity idolatry, but the film just kind says “nah, let’s move on to the predictable stuff.” One of the most powerful lines in the film involves a declaration about how the artist is no longer responsible for the art once they put it out. That’s a great idea that deserves more than a single scene, but the movie has better things to do with its time. And to add to it, the music – much of which is performed by Hawke himself – isn’t really that interesting (unlike the killer High Fidelity soundtrack and Badly Drawn Boy’s About a Boy offering).
The love story that dominates the film is… fine. It’s serviceable and Byrne and Hawke work well together, but the dialogue isn’t as sharp as in other Hornby films and the more interesting and original ideas are swallowed up by the romance. Still, strong performances carry it forward.
The movie takes the easy path instead of the interesting one. If you don’t care about that then you’re left with a decent, but fairly unremarkable lovestory.
Juliet, Naked Review Conclusion
If you’re looking for the next High Fidelity, well, keep looking. Juliet, Naked has a few of the familiar bells and whistles associated with a Horny story, but it lacks some of the humor and insight that others do. It also ignores its best assets in favor of playing it safe.
With lesser performances, Juliet, Naked would have been instantly forgotten, but Byrne and Hawke – and O’Dowd when he’s allowed to shine – do elevate the fairly average story. It could have been more, but there’s still a decent love story, albeit a very traditional one.
Juliet, Naked is rated R with a running time of 98 minutes.