Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Aug 27, 2018 7:04 am 
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Second chances, across the pond

There is nothing profound about this film of Nick Horby's Juliet, Naked. In fact it may be most notable for its superficiality, conventionality, and inconclusiveness. But it is a film in which pretty much everything comes together: the performances blend seamlessly with each other. It's an enjoyable, pleasant, occasionally even charming trans-Atlantic rom-com. Everyone involved has done his and her best. One must particularly commend Rose Byrne, Ethan Hawke, and Chris O'Dowd, and not forget the appealing Azhy Robertson as Tucker Crowe's young son, Jackson, or fail to mention that the currently seemingly ubiquitous Jimmy O. Yang (of "Silicon Valley" and now the obnoxious but unavoidable Crazy Rich Asians), also pops up here, as Eliot. Even if I can't remember who Eliot was. But I will remember Ethan Hawke, Rose Byrne, Chris O'Dowd, and the boy.

Juliet, Naked is an indulgent treatment of pop music obsessions, of an idol, a winner turned loser, a cult indie rocker who's thrown away half his life but is given a second chance when he unexpectedly turns up in real life. Tucker Crowe (Ethan Hawke, wearing his role like an old shoe) is an American singer-songwriter who was a big deal in the early Nineties. But he hasn't done anything for over two decades and lives in his ex-wife's garage in upstate New York, and devotes himself to raising his young son Jackson, a hint of Hornby's About a Boy. Jackson is to make up for a number, to be counted only later, of other children by different mothers whom he's fathered and not raised or even introduced to each other.

Meanwhile, in Sandcliff, a little coastal town in England (Ramsgate was the shooting location), there dwells Tucker Crowe's greatest admirer Duncan (Chris O'Dowd), who touts his music as a local college film and "television studies" teacher, the pop music obsession theme evoking Hornby's other movie hit, High Fidelity. And there is Duncan's on-and-off girlfriend Annie (Rose Byrne), who's realizing their relationship is going nowhere. Somehow when the acoustic demo of Tucker's eponymous hit record from 25 years ago surfaces, and thanks to the internet, Annie and Tucker get involved in an exploratory online relationship. It's certainly odd how this relationship gets started - a snarky comment Annie leaves on Duncan's Tucker Crowe blog. But online relationships often have obscure origins. Obviously it has to do with Duncan's obsession with Tucker Crowe's music, and Annie's fatigue with same. But online, it's just Annie and Tucker, starting fresh, getting to know each other with that openness to the void that the internet can enable.

Hornby manipulates his plot through Tucker's various offspring, who haven't met and in some cases don't even know about each other. Conveniently enough Tucker has a grown daughter in England called Lizzie (Ayoola Smart), and she's just about to have her first baby. Tucker conveniently throws together some royalties so he can afford to fly to London to see this, his first grandchild. Of course he brings along Jackson, and that keeps up the cuteness factor.

The best scene in the movie comes in the hospital, but - spoiler alert - the patient isn't new mother Lizzie but Tucker, who's had a heart attack on arrival. No worries: it's only enough to provide this hospital room setting - the big room has no other patients, which happens more often in movies than real life (there are enough characters in this story without any colorful fellow patients): Tucker isn't disabled enough to prevent Ethan Hawke from delivering plenty of dialogue. This is a classic scene from a farce. More new characters keep coming in the door, and nobody knew they were coming, like the twin boys (deeply immersed in their handheld devices and cut off by their headphones at first), and their mother, and Lizzie's mother, and Annie. It's hard to keep track of all these characters, hastily sketched in as they are. But it's fun, and exciting.

What is lacking is any sort of profound development of relationships, because the fun is focused on the surprises. Duncan, you see, does not know that Tucker Crowe has been found or has come to his home town. The various siblings and half-siblings don't know that each other is going to turn up. Annie doesn't know how she's going to feel about Tucker in person.

The screen adaptation of Nick Hornby's novel is a matter of couples. It was written by Peretz and his wife Evgenia, and Jim Taylor and his wife Tamara Jenkins. Did some dilution occur? Too many cooks? I don't know. If the result of their able efforts feels superficial, I can't say it's their fault. Why is comedy so joyful? Because it's about bringing people together, and together is how people are happy, not alone. Also because it is about forgiveness. Everyone here is forgiven for his or her inadequate, throwaway life, and promised the possibility of a better one - or at least self-acceptance.

After the big excitement of the hospital room, a farcical comedy triumph because it brings together so many people more or less happily and joyfully, there is the more important meeting of Duncan and Tucker, and Annie and Tucker's chance to be alone together and think about whether their online connection can be a real life one. It seems to fizzle out. But then there is a second chance. It's a bit sketchy, really. The fun was in, well, not getting there. There is also a convenient 1964 celebration in the town, leading to a surprise performance by Tucker Crowe of the Kinks’ “Waterloo Sunset” at the electric keyboard, which also fizzles out.

The stunning superficiality of this film does not detract from its occasional charm. Everyone involved has lavished a surprising amount of skill and talent to make every moment work, including the lead actors performing in top form, and the composition of the Tucker Crowe music, the result of three years of collaborations with songwriters.

Juliet, Naked, 105 mins., debuted at Sundance Jan. 2018; also Sydney. US theatrical release 17 Aug. 2018; UK release, 2 Nov. Metascore: 64%.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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