BY BROOKE CORSO
Nick Hornby stories such as “High Fidelity” or “About a Boy” or, in this case “Juliet, Naked,” feature men weighing the trajectory of their lives against the benefits of remaining fixed in whatever bubble they have scaffolded around themselves. For a woman to endure their egocentricities and still remain committed indicates not so much a gluttony for suffering as a determination for hope in what lies dormant beneath a veneer of indecision or immaturity or doubt.
Some may call such a woman a doormat; I see her as a teacher sees the promise of a student with all the ability but lacking the emotional drive that will come in time under her guidance and tutelage. It is a patience that demands more belief in the man than he regards in himself.
I can’t help but view “Juliet, Naked” as Ethan Hawke forcing the women of a certain generation (mine) to realize that Troy Dyer, his character from 1994’s “Reality Bites” who steadfastly refused to conform to the Michael lifestyle embodied by Ben Stiller, instead locked himself into a 24-year-old state of arrested development in which he coasted on the very artistic validation that Michael sought. Here, as shiftless musician Tucker Crowe, who produced a critically revered but commercially unsuccessful album in the early ’90s and slid into gradual seclusion afterward.
In a fitting way, Hawke gets to play the role of the cult figure curating his own legend that he directed in this year’s Blaze. In both stories, Tucker Crowe and Blaze Foley alternate between proactively creating the legend around themselves and watching it unfurl among their contemporaries and audiences, eagerly enjoying the panache of their evolving renown but then angered when the tall tales don’t paint them as pretty as they should be. Director Jesse Peretz (“Our Idiot Brother”) does a clever job of examining the kudzu development of a cult figure and the devoted and fervent few who sustain that legend.
For almost three decades, Crowe has left a string of relationships and their dividends as a trail of breadcrumbs from the Juliet album, which was about his first major relationship in Los Angeles, to present day where he lives in the garage of his last ex-wife, caring for their young son, Jackson (a surprisingly mature and insightful Azhy Robertson). He’s not fully absent from the world, checking in on Duncan’s blog enough to laugh at the inaccuracies and read the dreaded comments section on each post which is torture in itself. From his garage nook, he has been allowed to remain a boy forever because that epoch in his life remained revered and justified as glorious enough to never warrant reinvention or progress.
One of Crowe’s devoted trumpeters is Duncan Thomson (Chris O’Dowd), who has worshipped Crowe from the start and runs a fan blog from his home in England that keeps the legend present. He has documented every step of his idol’s stage life: early gigs and rare recordings, magazine interviews and publicity photos of a once-promising career, the regard of which now lies in the hands of the fanboys and their mercurial whims.
In the void of the Internet, Duncan can create whatever simulation of the mysterious Crowe that he wants and it infuses him with a power over that persona that long separates him from the actual flesh-and-blood man. As a day job, Duncan teaches a course on American Cinema and the Alienated Male at the local community college, and his pondering on the evolution of masculinity and gradual disregard toward its artistic potential makes his regular video entries and chats with fans around the world on the blog all the more hilarious. To Duncan, the art of fan worship is almost up there with the craft of the music itself, and he swims in his creations as seen plastered over the walls of the home he shares with longtime girlfriend, Annie (Rose Byrne).
Annie is sweet and smart, a reliable partner to Duncan and sister to the bubbly, crazy Roz (Lily Brazier). She seems as much a fixture of their quaint seaside town as the “Olde Curiosity Shop” (no doubt named that to attract tourists) down the street from her job at the historical museum: her edges and bright colors steadily being dulled and tempered like the fragile sepia photographs she is compiling for a retrospective on local post-war culture. Byrne shines as the reserved but plucky Annie, aware enough that her choices could easily cost her decades of complacency in a life she doesn’t hate, but doesn’t love either, Annie uses her curator’s eye for inspiration and takes tiny leaps of independence in the most unexpected situations.
When a rare copy of early draft, or “naked,” sessions of Juliet get sent to Duncan and Annie listens to it first, stripped of studio gloss and tuning, she ironically hears all the falsity that a producer is supposed to create over a set list. Conversely, Duncan is outraged that she heard the Juliet sessions before him and when he listens alone on his headphones, he is brought to tears. Where Annie hears the stage persona, Duncan sees the artist. Then, Annie posts her anonymous review on Duncan’s blog, and Tucker reads it.
What ensues between them is a growing correspondence worthy of The Shop around the Corner in its moments of twee sentimentality, mulling over the awkwardness of the forty-something years when the decisions of youth show their exponential repercussions. “At least you have a past to live up to,” Annie writes Tucker. Though his curiosity in her is obviously peaked, we aren’t privy to much of Tucker’s intentions towards this woman on the other side of the globe until he decides to multitask and visit both her and his first grandchild, and both of those fresh-start scenarios allow the story to stretch beyond the conventions of a romantic comedy and delve into deeper moments of introspection.
Once Tucker is forced to confront the loose ends he has left behind but also the treasures connected to him by blood or friendship, he begins to chip away at the shell of regret and doubt that had ensconced and stymied him for years. Similarly, Duncan chooses the truest love of his life and Annie finds someone who shares her desire not to be bound by the concept of wasted years, but finding the gumption to move forward at a braver age than the immortal twenties.
“Juliet, Naked” (2018)
STARRING Rose Byrne, Ethan Hawke, Chris O’Dowd, Azhy Robertson, Lily Brazier
DIRECTOR Jesse Peretz
MPAA RATING R