If you have, or want to have, children, and you think that there is something wrong with any grown person who isn’t interested in doing the same, then Juliet, Naked is the movie for you. Of course, that’s not a ground breaking or particularly challenging stance for a movie to take. There is an overabundance of movies (and books, and magazine articles, etc., etc.) that reinforces the idea that becoming a parent is the pinnacle of maturity.
Movies about the subject – an overwhelming majority of which are romantic comedies – have thoroughly exhausted one particular “becoming a parent” subgenre. It’s what I’ll call “The Man-child Matures” subgenre. Knocked Up, Nine Months, and About a Boy all focus on emotionally stunted men who grow into responsible adults only when they realize that, yes, becoming a parent is what they really wanted all along. Having parenthood thrust upon them makes them finally grow up.
Our dominant culture takes the view that child-bearing and rearing is what every healthy, well-adjusted adult should desire. To decide otherwise is to be somehow broken or childish. I couldn’t help but roll my eyes when, within the first five minutes of Juliet, Naked, the movie ham-handedly telegraphed that it would focus on this particular trope. That’s not its only preoccupation, but neither is the rest of Juliet, Naked interesting or entertaining enough to make it a satisfying experience.
The movie focuses on Annie, a museum curator – a job she kind-of/sort-of inherited from her father – who never moved away from the English town where she was born. Annie’s partner, Duncan, is a film and TV critical studies professor at a local college. Teaching and writing about movies and television is how Duncan pays the bills, but his true obsession is music – one musician in particular. He is fixated on the brief but brilliant (so the movie insists) career of Tucker Crowe. The American singer/songwriter released a masterpiece 25 years ago, called Juliet, but then disappeared from the music scene. Think Jeff Buckley, but if he had become a secretive recluse instead of dying tragically.
Duncan, who maintains a website and message board devoted to Crowe, receives a CD in the mail containing never released demo versions of the songs on Juliet. Each track is stripped to nothing but acoustic guitar and vocals. It is Juliet, Naked. Annie, who is fed up with Duncan’s Tucker Crowe fetish, posts an unfavorable review of the collection on the message board. To her shock, Crowe sends her an email agreeing with her opinion. They strike up a correspondence, and one day he tells her he’s coming to London soon. He asks if they can meet.
From the above synopsis, you might be wondering what Juliet, Naked has to do with the decision to have kids. The answer is mixed up with Duncan’s pop culture obsession, as well as Crowe’s own fatherhood issues. In an early scene (the one that caused my eye-rolling), Annie and Duncan have Annie’s sister and her new girlfriend over for dinner. When the conversation turns to kids, Duncan explains that neither he nor Annie wants them. The staging of the scene and the look on Annie’s face as Duncan explains his reasoning are about as subtle as a garbage fire. It also becomes obvious that the real reason Duncan doesn’t want kids is because he’s too busy being a man-child. His obsession with Tucker Crowe is nearly all-consuming.
In fact, it’s Duncan’s behavior in Juliet, Naked that challenged me the most. My own life is centered in no small part around movies. If you ask almost anyone who knows me to name my defining feature, they would probably say movie addict. Chris O’Dowd, who plays Duncan as irritating and neurotic, forced me to look in the mirror and survey my own worst qualities. Those of us who follow a pursuit obsessively, be it movies, music, sports, or any of a myriad of subjects, must take care in how we subject the people in our lives to it. Where the movie breaks down is in the suggestion that parenthood offers the sole solution to Duncan’s own adolescent tendencies, as well as Annie’s stagnant life.
To give credit where credit is due, the movie does complicate the idea of parenthood when Tucker Crowe enters the story. The burned-out rocker is himself somewhat of a bad dad. He has five children by four different women. When we meet him, he’s living in the guest house of one of his ex-lovers and her current partner, so that he can help raise the son that they share together. His teenage daughter, Lizzie, who lives in London, is pregnant, and Crowe is struggling to get to know her. So, becoming a parent isn’t the magic ticket to adulthood and maturity that these kinds of movies often suggest.
The highlight of the picture comes from the chemistry between Rose Byrne and Ethan Hawke, who play Annie and Crowe, respectively. Byrne, aside from the unsubtle expression I mentioned earlier, is charming and effervescent as Annie. Hawke slips into the role of has-been Crowe with ease. I get the impression, though, that Hawke’s work in Juliet, Naked wasn’t particularly challenging for the actor. That’s because I’ve seen his intense performance in this year’s First Reformed. Hawke is also about to release his feature film directorial debut – a passion project called Blaze.
Hawke’s scenes with Byrne – their awkward fumbling as they get to know each other, first via email, then in person – are the most enjoyable of the movie. Most of the drama in Juliet, Naked comes from Crowe’s relationships with his estranged kids. None of it, however, is interesting or poignant enough to make the movie all that memorable.
Why it got 2.5 stars:
- Juliet, Naked is fairly harmless. If you're looking for some date night fluff, you could do worse. I just couldn't really get on board with the tired tropes on which it relies. It also feels like one of those movies that I'll be reminded of in five years and think to myself, "I vaguely remember seeing that...but that's about it..."
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- I mentioned About a Boy in the main review. That movie (and the short-lived TV series from a few years ago) was based on a novel by Nick Hornby, as is Juliet, Naked. Hornby certainly knows his strengths, and I remember enjoying About a Boy quite a bit, but I was never convinced with Juliet, Naked.
- One of the notes I took while watching the movie was, "Having a hard time believing a middle-aged man would be this into one artist...And that's me saying that..." That was a definite barrier to entry for me. The whole concept never seemed believable.
- Another fault I had with Juliet, Naked is, as enjoyable as they are, the scenes between Annie and Duncan forming a romantic relationship never feel authentic. Their bond just sort of happens because the movie needs it to happen.
Close encounters with people who don't know how to act in a movie theater:
- Nothing much to speak of at this screening. The crowd seemed to enjoy it. I didn't get the sense that it was something people would rush out to tell people to see, though.
Up Next at The Forgetful Film Critic:
- I'm being indecisive. I might end up calling an audible when it comes down to it, but right now the most likely candidates are: Blaze, the directorial debut of Ethan Hawke that I mentioned above; The Miseducation of Cameron Post, a drama about a teenage girl being sent to a gay conversion therapy program; Crazy Rich Asians, the hugely popular romantic comedy based on the hugely popular book of the same name. Come back next week to see which way I went.