Friday, September 7, 2018

Juliet, Naked: Getting it Right

Rose Byrne and Chris O'Dowd in Juliet, Naked. (Photo: IMDB)

Nick Hornby’s 2009 novel Juliet, Naked has an irresistible premise. Its heroine, Annie, lives in an English seaside town, working at the local museum. Her long-time live-in boyfriend, Duncan, teaches university classes in film and TV but his obsession is an indie musician named Tucker Crowe who mysteriously disappeared from the rock scene years ago after releasing a heartbreak album called "Juliet", stirred into existence by a high-profile break-up with a beautiful model. Duncan and other Tucker Crowe fanatics gather on a website, spending hours dissecting his lyrics and speculating about his life. When Crowe’s old recording company releases an album of Juliet demos called "Juliet, Naked", and sends Duncan a pre-release copy, he goes into fandom overdrive, penning a review that proclaims it a masterpiece, Annie, who is feeling increasingly remote from Duncan, publishes her own critique for the website under a pseudonym, declaring it dreary and half-baked without the sophisticated musicianship that distinguishes the album it was just a preparation for – and Tucker Crowe himself e-mails her from America to second her opinion. Unexpectedly, these two, both at loose ends in their vastly different lives, become (e-mail) pen pals, and then circumstances bring him to England, where they finally meet.

Hornby’s novels are hilarious and full of narrative invention, and he writes wonderful characters. I usually devour his books as soon as they appear in bookstores, and Juliet, Naked is one of my favorites. (He followed it with Funny Girl, about a young aspiring comic who becomes involved, as actress and writer, in a breakthrough English TV show in the 1960s, and it’s just about as good.) Hornby is the most companionable of writers; I sink into his books and then carry the characters around in my head for weeks after it’s finished and, reluctantly, I have to put it down. Jesse Peretz’s new film of Juliet, Naked is precisely the movie the novel deserves. Scripted by Eugenia Peretz, Jim Taylor and Tamara Jenkins, it’s deeply satisfying; the filmmakers have done everything right, starting with the casting. Rose Byrne gives a fresh, ebullient performance as Annie; blissfully sane, loose-jointed and underscored with layers of muted feeling, it’s the best work she’s done. She’s ideally partnered by Ethan Hawke as Tucker and Chris O’Dowd as Duncan, acting in diametrically opposed styles. Hornby’s achievement with Duncan is to make him ridiculous without losing sight of his humanity – what makes his fixation on his rock idol touching – and O’Dowd pulls off that balance. His self-absorption and geek elitism and condescension are infuriating, but when he plays "Juliet, Naked" for Gina (Denise Gough), the new movement instructor he ends up cheating on Annie with – apparently because, unlike Annie, she has a more sympathetic response to the CD – his face gets a glow like an overbaked tart and he looks puffed up with a combination of adolescent thrilled-fan emotion and foolish pride in the fact that he knows only a miniscule part of the population is equipped (or, Annie would say, deluded enough) to appreciate the experience. Yet his love of Tucker Crowe’s music is genuine. Hornby has a kind of genius for creating characters who are buoyed up on their own pop expertise. (Rob Gordon in High Fidelity is the obvious example, though Hornby made him his protagonist.) O’Dowd finds dozens of inspired little ways to embroider the character.

Ethan Hawke as Tucker. (Photo: IMDB)

As Tucker, Hawke gives yet another in a string of superb movie performances. It doesn’t demand the kind of imaginative leap he made in Born to Be Blue or Maudie or First Reformed, but it has an effortless naturalism, and it’s full of grace notes. Tucker messed up the first half of his life with all the usual excesses that go along with rock ‘n’ roll celebrity, and he has a team of ex-romantic partners and disappointed children he has hardly any relationship with; the exception, his little boy Jackson (played by a charming young actor named Azhy Robertson), whose mother has kindly allowed Tucker to live in a garage behind her house, is receiving the full benefit of his fatherly attention. Tucker is a hard-boiled realist about his own failures – and when he and Jackson fly to London after his college-age daughter Lizzie (Ayoola Smart) gives birth and he collapses in the hospital lobby with a heart attack, they all march into his hospital room to confront him, in a Loony Tunes scene of domestic disaster that is simultaneously uproarious and agonizing. (This would be the toughest sequence in the movie for any director to pull off; Peretz doesn’t miss a nuance.) Hawke gets Tucker’s deflation in the face of all this accumulated outrage and also his offended sense of justice; he gives the character a philosophical attitude and a survivor’s spirit. After he gets out of the hospital he and Jackson spend a few weeks with Annie – which, inevitably, causes him to cross paths with Duncan, who has no idea that they’ve formed a connection – just as Tucker has no idea that her now ex-boyfriend is the fruitcake whose wrongheaded speculations he’s read on the website dedicated to him. This is the section that brings out the true meat of Hawke’s portrayal. In one beautiful scene he tells Annie the story of his first, spectacular screw-up as a parent. In another, at the opening of a show at Annie’s museum dedicated to the summer of 1964 in this little town, a local politician (Phil Davis), who has no clue who he is but knows he’s a Yankee rock musician, presses him to get up and play something; Annie is horrified and embarrassed, but Tucker sits down at the keyboard and sings the Kinks ballad “Waterloo Sunset,” and the moment is transcendent.

Among the supporting cast, most of whom have small roles, everyone makes a strong impression. I was particularly drawn to Ayoola Smart (who is also a luminous camera subject) and Lily Brazier as Annie’s lesbian sister Ros, who continually falls for unsuitable women – and whose tendency to wear her heart on her sleeve makes her greatly appealing. (In the book she’s Annie’s co-worker.) The writers have stayed very faithful to Hornby; they left out Annie’s sad-sack, inept therapist, and it’s a wise omission – he’s a device, which may be why he’s the sole character in the novel I don’t find plausible. For those of us who fell in love with Juliet, Naked on the page, the film is a special boon, but you certainly don’t need to have read the book to respond to it. Honestly, I can’t imagine an audience not being entranced by it. At the end of what has turned out for some reason to be a great movie summer, the movie is a genuine late-season surprise.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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