Juliet, Naked

Rose Byrne and Ethan Hawke in Juliet, Naked

Let’s get this out of the way right up front; “Naked” is not meant to be a lascivious device for luring lonely old men into the theater on a Tuesday afternoon.  In the context of this movie, the term refers to emotional vulnerability. So, if you’re hoping to catch a glimpse of Rose Byrne in the altogether, be prepared for disappointment.  Juliet, Naked is to a great extent an old school romantic comedy with a distinctive counter-culture mindset.

Naked was adapted from a novel by Nick Hornby.  Pay attention to that name. We’re talking about the Nick Hornby who also had a hand in writing High Fidelity and both Oscar nominated films About a Boy and BrooklynNaked isn’t on a par with those great movies, but you know we’re dealing with high-end source material here. It’s a nice work and I’m glad I saw it.

I generally don’t like romantic comedies. The label suggests the filmmakers are about to nudge you in obvious and cliched directions.  Rom-coms are usually promoted as being hilarious and are seldom more than mildly amusing. Give me a good story about people behaving in realistic ways and the comedy will come around on its own.  You don’t need to rub people’s noses in neon lights, exclamation points, and relentless assertions that this This Is Funny! If it is, we’ll get it.

Juliet, Naked is funny. Well, maybe not “funny.” How about genuine and amusing? The characters feel real rather than contrived, and that helps a lot.

Duncan (Chris O’Dowd) is a fanboy whose obsession with a one-album wonder from the ‘70s eventually destroys his relationship with longtime girlfriend, Annie (Rose Byrne).  By the way, O’Dowd and his fanboy club members deliver the most realistic portrayal of the culture I’ve seen. This isn’t Big Bang Theory. These are real guys with issues.

One of the best scenes in the film is Duncan’s eloquent defense of devotees. Experiencing art is unique to the individual and that experience can have a special meaning, whether the artist likes it or not.  Some creative types have a penchant for dismissing their audience. Duncan’s, “What gave you the idea that art is for the enjoyment of the artist?” was something of an epiphany.

In tried and true rom-com fashion, Annie and Tucker Crowe (Ethan Hawke), the object of Duncan’s fixation, connect by way of a transatlantic electronic flirtation. Their inevitable romance is obvious from the first moment Tucker’s name pops up on Annie’s computer screen.

That last paragraph is a synopsis of the reasons I generally don’t care for rom-coms; inevitable, obvious, and oh so cute.  Fortunately, Naked has a great deal going for it that gets us past the McSchmaltz.  The mundane nature of life is a recurring presence and the film maintains an almost Scottish level of melancholy. Rather than precious, the predominant theme is perseverance. The world-weariness extends to Annie’s fading English oceanfront resort, Sandcliff (Ramsgate), and to the threadbare local museum she curates.

That premise is sustained by the characters and by the location.  Annie, Tucker, Duncan and several lesser characters speak to each other in realistic dialog rather than overwrought banter penned by writers straining to be cute and clever. Their interactions feel honest and not staged for the purpose of wringing a desired emotion from the audience.

Azhy Robertson plays Tucker’s young son, Jackson, whom he is determined to parent in the nurturing fashion he failed to do with his other three, or four, or five, or some undetermined number of offspring.  Naturally, Jackson is adorable, but he’s adorable in the way you’d like your kid to be, not in the syrupy manner most rom-coms depict kids. I left the theater wanting to see more of Robertson, and I rarely leave wanting to see more of any child actor.

Let’s not forget this is a romantic comedy, though.  There’s the gratuitous horn-dog lesbian sister for comic relief.  There’s also a superfluous movie health crises--the kind that’ll put you in a hospital bed but still leave you looking damn sexy. That’s also a convenient setting for the farce of all your children gathering in the same room with your assorted exes all shouting at the same time.  

Most romantic comedies end with a look ahead at the lives of the key characters. Juliet, Naked does that but it’s a satisfying peek. It feels like the key characters have earned their futures rather than having them bestowed by a guy alone in the writers’ room.

 

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Ed Johnson-Ott has been NUVO's lead film critic for more than 20 years.

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