' ' Cinema Romantico: Juliet, Naked

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Juliet, Naked

In “First Reformed”, as a Reverend suffering a health crisis and a crisis of faith, Ethan Hawke gave a beautifully modulated performance, conveying a placid exterior meant to mask an anguished interior, understanding that his character’s torment never made itself visible, not until the very end, glimpsed merely in voiceover. In “Juliet, Naked”, on the other hand, as Tucker Crowe, a cult singer-songwriter who has not so much fallen on hard times as fallen off the grid, leaving a trail of divorces and children in his wake, Hawke lets it all hang out. He’s grown his hair shaggy and put on serious paunch, seriously accentuating it with his ratty t-shirts and posture, sort of thrusting the paunch out as he walks, take it or leave it, he seems to be saying, which brings home the way he plays the entire part. He is not someone who’s made peace, necessarily, but who has figured out how to just sort of ride the waves of life, doing so with alternate bemusement and struggle, someone who hardly seems to believe he was this other person so long ago yet simultaneously fesses up to the scars he left. A phone call Tucker makes to the daughter he’s never met is a familiar moment that feels new given how Hawke gives his character an earnest if bittersweet respect for his daughter’s wishes.

We learn about Tucker through the eyes of Duncan (Chris O’Dowd) a professor whose real job, so to speak, is Tucker Crowe, overseeing a Tucker Crowe fan group and running a web site entirely dedicated to their favorite recording artist, not just his music but his personal life and all the attending conspiracy theories. When Duncan receives an acoustic recording of Tucker’s most cherished album – called Juliet, Naked – as the movie opens, the Tucker enthusiast gushes about it online, to which his long-suffering girlfriend, Annie (Rose Byrne), perhaps having just suffered long enough, or perhaps genuinely not caring for the recording, or perhaps both, types a reply of pointed disagreement, peeving her generally inattentive boyfriend. Tucker, however, lurking online, sees Annie’s comment, emails her, and sparks a “You’ve Got Mail”-ish friendship that teases blooming into something more.

This is where we should stipulate that “Juliet, Naked” is based on a book by Nick Hornby, that longtime chronicler of music-obsessed manboys. Yet Hornby did not write the script. It was a screenplay by committee, including two women, beginning with Tamara Jenkins (and Jim Taylor) and concluding with Evgenia Peretz. That’s crucial. If normally Duncan would be the principal character, here he and his boorish behavior take a backseat, moving out of his house with Annie and essentially out of movie too when he cheats on Annie with a colleague whose appreciation for Tucker is more attractive to him than the actual colleague. It essentially moves Duncan out of the movie too, though he tries worming his way back in, never successfully, his late film plea to Annie functioning as deliberate desperation rather than enlightenment, a moment Byrne brilliantly plays not with any kind of creeping reassessment but self-evident truth that she’s already moved on.

If Hawke’s character bears similarity to his own life, in so much as he too has long been grappling with the after-effects of divorce, so does Byrne’s, her career too often marked by mere Love Interest roles where she is afforded one funny line for every four-to-five funny lines of the male lead, if she is allowed one funny line at all. “Juliet, Naked”, however, is Annie’s movie as much as Tucker’s, as if director Jesse Peretz saw this as an opportunity to see “High Fidelity” through the eyes of Laura. Byrne runs with the role, mining pathos from comedy and comedy from pathos, playing Annie not as someone trying to find herself but as someone who already has a solid sense of who she is and now is trying to figure out where she fits into this suddenly brand-new world.

Annie and Tucker’s ensuing relationship is never exactly unpredictable, evinced in his one-song keyboard concert where he is reluctantly re-enlisted to embrace his musical roots, which Hawke at least plays with an admirable sheepishness acknowledging the inherent schmaltz, but neither does it compulsively trend toward neat resolution. Annie and Tucker enjoy one another’s company, and that company makes them happy, but they also don’t submit to the myth that this happiness alone makes them complete. They need space to figure things out, and even as the movie winds up, they still haven’t figured everything out, only found the wherewithal to give it a go, standing, I realize now, in stark contrast to that rigid dictum what’s-his-name, that little green dude, espoused about how you only do or not. Nope, little dude, sometimes there is a try.

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