'Juliet, Naked': Film Review | Sundance 2018

A passably amusing but overly safe and conventional romantic farce.

Ethan Hawke, Rose Byrne and Chris O'Dowd star in Jesse Peretz's adaptation of a Nick Hornby novel.

For a romantic comedy with counterculturish roots, Juliet, Naked is served up right over the middle of the plate. A broadly played piece about a 40ish British couple whose lives are upended by a mostly forgotten American cult rock singer, director Jesse Peretz's film is passably engaging and has its funny moments but feels almost startlingly mainstream and conventional for an indie film based on a Nick Hornby novel. A modest commercial future looks in store.

Only a lack of viable options keeps childless couple Annie (Rose Byrne) and Duncan (Chris O'Dowd) together. The very attractive Annie is interestingly portrayed as not terribly bright or ambitious, having decided to stick around the boring waterfront holiday town of Sandcliff (doubled by Ramsgate) to help her sister run an inn rather than set higher sights for herself.

If Annie had a higher self-opinion, she would no doubt long ago have called it quits with Duncan, an academic whose enduring passion in life centers on Tucker Crowe (Ethan Hawke), a once-charismatic musical rebel who put down his guitar in the middle of a gig 25 years ago and has never performed or recorded a song since. The fanatical Duncan has created a shrine to Crowe in one room of the house and maintains a meticulous fan website. It's to Annie's enduring credit that she finds the washed-up rocker's work positively dreary.

Confirming her opinion is a sampling of Crowe's music, which does not encourage a second listening. The examples played sound overproduced and quite ordinary, certainly not the stuff that cults are made of. In no way does it seem like music that would endure or inspire the undying enthusiasm of even a small band of fanatics. It's very easy to take Annie's side in this matter, although you'd think that some effort would have been made to give Crowe's work a smidgen of distinction, perhaps in the form of socially minded or poetic lyrics.

Putting a merciful final nail in the coffin of their relationship is Duncan's careless affair with a new teacher at his school, which he has the effrontery to reveal to Annie at a restaurant in public. Good riddance to this fool, even if we, and Annie, are not done with him yet.

Crowe makes his entrance 20 minutes in, and it's not an impressive one. The middle-aged guy retains a certain rugged handsomeness, but it's diminished by a bulging gut and unkempt scruffiness. Bereft of cash, he lives in a garage behind the modest country home of the mother of his youngest son, Jackson (Azhy Robertson). It's likely that Crowe scholar Duncan knows how many wives, women and kids the musician has had better than Crowe does.

A useful little plot contrivance puts Crowe in touch with Annie online, where they establish a frisky rapport, enough to make them want to see each other when Crowe comes to London via another plot contrivance involving the English provenance of one of his daughters. Little Jackson comes along too, resulting in an English farce-like gathering under one roof — in a hospital room, no less — in which long-festering emotions and grievances amusingly spill out for all to wallow in.

There is indeed some fun in seeing the dirty laundry unfurled once and for all, and the performers are mostly up to the task. But despite the promising setup of an ever randy and irresponsible rock singer, a self-important and emotionally oblivious scholar and the almost universally mistreated and undervalued women, Juliet, Naked never truly achieves comic lift-off. Instead, it bumps around from one mild laugh, awkward encounter and bewildering decision to another without ever building up an exhilarating head of steam.

The lead performers are very well cast and would seem to be delivering what's been asked of them. Perhaps more could have been demanded, both in the writing and direction, as it's all just too mild-mannered.

 

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Premieres)

Production: Bone Fide/Apatow Company

Cast: Rose Byrne, Ethan Hawke, Chris O'Dowd, Lily Brazier, Ayoola Smart, Enzo Cilenti, Pamela Lyne, Denise Gough, Phil Davis

Director: Jesse Peretz

Screenwriters: Jim Taylor, Tamara Jenkins, Evgenia Peretz, based on the novel by Nick Hornby

Producers: Albert Berger, Ron Yerxa, Barry Mendel, Judd Apatow, Jeffrey Soros

Director of photography: Remi Adefarasin

Production designer: Sarah Finlay

Costume designer: Lindsay Pugh

Editors: Sabine Hoffman, Robert Nassau

Music: Nathan Larson

Casting: Dixie Chassay

97 minutes