Try as you might to resist it—it’s a winner

Certain movies simply win you over. Even when you can see the glaring faults, or if it’s a genre you don’t like, or a story you’ve heard a hundred times over. Juliet, Naked (dir. Jesse Peretz) is a comfy, rainy day romantic comedy, something the righteous critic in me would love to sneer at, and yet I couldn’t keep the smile off my face when I left the theatre. This movie is loaded with charm, led by Rose Byrne, Chris O’Dowd and Ethan Hawke. Its script (by Evgenia Peretz, Tamara Jenkins and Jim Taylor, based on a novel by Nick Hornby) possesses an earnest desire to show connections between human beings, especially the complex messes we get ourselves into when we’re not honest with those we care about.

Speaking of honesty: I have an unreasonable dislike of anything the British author Nick Hornby has his name attached to, despite never having read one of his books and having seen very few of his movies. I even like About A Boy (2002), right up until the excruciating duet-rendition of ‘Killing Me Softly’ at the school talent show. There’s just something about Hornby’s leanings towards a neat, happy ending, his snobbish schoolboy obsession with indie rock and his irritatingly benevolent desire make audiences feel good when they watch his movies. I’m a bit of a grump, especially when it comes to romantic comedies with happy endings.

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Juliet, Naked has all the markers of a textbook case of unrealistic movie-love: Annie (Byrne) is in an unhappy relationship with Duncan (O’Dowd), and it’s mostly because of another man: reclusive rocker with a heartbreaker for a debut album, Tucker Crowe (Hawke). Duncan has in the couple’s house a shrine to Crowe (whom he’s never met), the walls laden with photos of Crowe from all ages (a clever use of Hawke’s long career as an actor, in photos), he runs a fan site dedicated to Crowe, listens to his music constantly and speculates, with other Crowe fans, as to his whereabouts and his supposed comeback album.

The roles Byrne and O’Dowd play are testaments to their talents as actors and apparent charm as human beings. Annie is perpetually dissatisfied with her relationship, mostly whining to her sister about Duncan or looking mopey around the house, and yet never once is she irritating or one-note. Byrne proved she was funny in Bad Neighbours (2014), and here she manages not to trivialise her character’s prolonged depression, while using to great comic effect her character’s chipper deflections of genuine distress.

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O’Dowd is mostly self-deprecating as the Crowe-obsessive, but his acting chops show when the movie takes an odd turn. After the real Crowe sends Annie an appreciative email when she dismisses an album of his on Duncan’s forum, the two eventually meet and begin dating, after a messy split with Annie. O’Dowd balances the overwhelming experience of meeting his idol, while coming to terms with that very idol being his ex-girlfriend’s potential new beau.

And then there’s Ethan Hawke. It’s important to note, that, and I really doubt I’m the only one who thinks this, Tucker Crowe’s music is pretty awful. It’s the kind of whiny, garage-light rock played by pub musicians to crowds who just want to hear covers. As the man, Hawke is heavily bearded, massively depressed and determined to be a good father to his son, Jackson, while he holes up in his ex-wife’s garage, unemployed. Again, this character could’ve been a one-man pity party with a few dollops of self-seriousness, but Hawke is a masterful actor who can turn his still youthful, wide smile into a wearied battler’s grin, who can shamble around with a weak gait and allow himself, Ethan Hawke the movie star, to look enfeebled. He becomes a grandfather in the course of the movie, and you believe it. Ethan Hawke! A grandfather!

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Most of the plot details I’ve thrown about in this review are covered in the trailer and other reviews, but, honestly, the movie’s twists and turns hardly need to surprise. This is a character study, a sugary and sweet one with its audience’s heart-strings wrapped around its fingers, yet it’s an honest and sincere one, whose aging oddball characters are all taken seriously by the screenplay and their performers. Occasionally, Duncan’s hurt ex-boyfriend schtick wears thin and his affair with colleague Gina (Denise Gough) is awkwardly irrelevant, but Juliet, Naked is a winner. Even if, like Annie, I couldn’t stand to get through a single album in its supposed genius rock star’s discography.

Feature image via Alex Bailey/ Roadside Attractions/Lionsgate