Directed By: Jesse Peretz/2018
It has been said that stories that originate from writer Nick Hornby (Brooklyn, Wild, An Education-screenplay; About a Boy, High Fidelity, Juliet Naked-Book/Novel) share many of the same tropes. These include themes of divorce or failed relationships, stories told from a first person perspective, and often references to Nick’s favorite bands or football club, Arsenal. The latest film based on a Nick Hornby book is titled Juliet, Naked, and nearly everyone of Hornby’s trademarks are present.
The story follows the character of Annie (Rose Byrne-Bridesmaids, Insidious films, Annie), a late 30’s-early 40’s woman who has been living with her boyfriend Duncan (Chris O’Dowd-Bridesmaids, Calvary, Molly’s Game) for quite a while. Annie secretly wants children, and feels the pressure of time, while Duncan holds to his oft repeated stance that he doesn’t want to bring kids into the world.
Duncan, it turns out is too busy running a website devoted to his rock idol obsession Tucker Crowe (Ethan Hawke-Blaze, First Reformed, Training Day). Crowe has been silent for 25 years after his album Juliet came out and he walked out of the middle of a performance. No one has seen him since, and this has provided Duncan and his small fan club the chance to endlessly speculate and collect whatever posters, demos, and trinkets they can from this obscure early 1990’s rocker. They also obsess over Juliet, parsing every lyric to learn every detail, further speculating on wherever these clues might lead.
When Duncan is sent a burned copy of Juliet, Naked, a stripped down version of the classic Tucker Crowe album, it is Annie who actually finds it in the mail. Unbeknownst to Duncan, she listens to it before telling him what arrived in the mail. She secretly hates his Crowe obsession, so she creates an online avatar on Duncan’s site and then gives Juliet, Naked a disparaging review on the fan site. Duncan, who has finally heard the music, is outraged at what this new member of his site has said, and is infuriated to find out later that it is Annie who has done this.
What Duncan doesn’t know is that the real Tucker Crowe has contacted Annie to let her know that her assessment was right on. This begins a correspondence with the rocker that eventually leads to them meeting up when he travels to London for his daughter, who is about to give birth to his first grandchild. This creates a love triangle of sorts between Tucker, Annie, and Duncan while the film becomes a take-down commentary of obsessed fandom truly not knowing the artist they idolize.
This running commentary of obsessed fans not truly knowing the art they obsess over is reminiscent of the 1980’s film Back to School with Rodney Dangerfield. In that film the English professor is a huge fan of Kurt Vonnegut. Dangerfield, a multi-millionaire, has Vonnegut (who actually did a cameo for the film) write his paper on Vonnegut’s book that Dangerfield was assigned. The professor fails the paper for plagiarism and remarks that whoever wrote it didn’t know the first thing about Vonnegut. Juliet, Naked uses this as both a way to needle potential obsessed fans in the audience, but also as a plot device towards a redemption story of how one deals with past demons and broken relationships.
Hawke has remarked that this character, Tucker Crowe, is Troy Dyer 25 years later. Troy was Hawke’s quintessential aimless Gen-X musician character in the Ben Stiller directed Reality Bites back in 1994. The comparison is appropriately on the nose but the story does provide some depth to Tucker Crowe that goes beyond aging Gen-X rocker who has disappeared under a cloud of mystery for some presumed artistic ploy. And while this has the marketing of a romantic comedy, it really tries to be more than that, and fortunately it is.
Juliet, Naked as an album title in the film certainly recalls the Beatles 2003 re-release of Let it Be titled Let it Be…Naked, where Phil Spector’s “wall of sound” approach was gutted so that the tracks could be returned to Glyn Johns originally produced versions. For The Beatles’ this is the right approach to that particular album which served as their swan song, being released as their last album even though it was actually recorded prior to Abby Road. Juliet, Naked being sent to Duncan strips Tucker Crowe’s Juliet down in much the same way but is actually seen as worse by the artist, which is the polar opposite of The Beatles who always hated the Spector version (other than maybe John who had originally brought Spector in to mess with John’s version).
Juliet, Naked is a fine film filled with many laughs, but also a sad underlying narrative that grounds it as a more real life human drama, than rom-com. This grounded human element brings it more in line with other Hornby stories, and less like a typical romantic-comedy. The ending is wrapped up a bit too nice and neat, however, which undercuts some of the realism but the cast are all top notch and at least create an internal believably to the ending of the film that is consistent with the characters as we see them throughout the film, even if the particulars are too on the nose by the time the credits roll.
Note: The first sentence cites IMDb’s descriptors of Nick Hornby’s common themes as it is a precise description. Link is provided in the review.