Sunday, September 9, 2018

STUCK IN THE GROOVES: a review of "Juliet, Naked"

Based upon the novel by Nick Hornby
Screenplay Written by Evgenia Peretz and Jim Taylor & Tamara Jenkins
Directed by Jesse Peretz
***1/2 (three and a half stars)

What is it about the concept of a love triangle that is so compelling? Or at least, why is it so compelling to me?

As I have written times before upon this blogsite, movie romances do not typically engage me that much. Now that is not to say that I have never been swept away or remotely affected by an on-screen romance. Quite the contrary, there are several that can count themselves as being some of the finest films I have ever seen within my life time. But typically, love stories in the movies fall into cliches, melodrama or other prefabricated situations and emotions, often in movies that just are not well written or acted enough to feel properly lived in, heartfelt, recognizable or remotely earned.

Yet, within the context of a love triangle, there is something precarious built-into the proceedings that provides a certain urgency, heartache, turbulence and yes, the full knowledge that one third of this triangle will undoubtedly have their feelings unrequited, therefore providing that exquisite romantic pain that so many love stories lack.

With "Juliet, Naked," Director Jesse Peretz's pitch perfect adaptation of one of Author Nick Hornby's finest novels, we are given a love triangle that delves further and deeper beyond the romantic constraints of the three main principals as well as even further than the music and melancholia as presented within Hornby's seminal High Fidelity (1995), and Director Stephen Frears' outstanding film adaptation from 2000. What Peretz has delivered is a deeply perceptive ode to middle aged malaise, arrested development and the ruts we find surprisingly find ourselves. Again, 2018 has given us another "small" film with an enormous reach and all we have to do is reach back towards it and just embrace, for this film unquestionably deserves your attention and affection.

Set primarily within a dreary, British coastal town of Sandcliff, "Juliet, Naked" stars a positively glowing Rose Byrne as the low spirited Annie Platt, who runs the Sandcliff Seaside Museum and is currently ensconced in the preparation for a "Summer Of '64" exhibit. Yet, most dispiritedly for Annie is her longtime relationship with her live-in boyfriend Duncan Thomson (an excellent Chris O'Dowd), a teacher of film and television studies at a local community college setting. Duncan is consumed with an unhealthy obsession over the cult alternative rock artist from the 1990's named Tucker Crowe, the singer/songwriter who released one critically celebrated yet publicly ignored album entitled "Juliet" and has disappeared from public view ever since walking out midway through a club show in Minneapolis 25 years prior.

While the relationship of Annie and Duncan began with not only promise but a mutual attraction and compatibility, especially concerning their pop cultural interests and discussions, what it has shifted into over the ensuing years, has proven itself deeply disheartening for Annie. Night after night, Duncan retires to his room, which has become a hybrid of a college dorm room/Tucker Crowe shrine, logs into the on-line Tucker Crowe fansite/archive he created and chats for hours upon end with other (male) Tucker Crowe devotees about the endless virtues and hidden meanings of "Juliet" plus the even more endless conspiracy theories about his supposed whereabouts since his disappearance.

Meanwhile, Annie grows increasingly more isolated, ignored, resentful and despondent.

On one fateful day, the lives of both Annie and Duncan begins to change upon the arrival of a mysterious package for Duncan, one which contains a CD entitled "Juliet, Naked," previously unreleased demo versions of the album that became "Juliet." Annie, who retrieved the mail before Duncan's return home from work, listens to the "new" album first, angering Duncan who feel sit is  his right to hear it first as he feels he is the bigger, and therefore, more rightful fan in this particular  household who will appreciate and understand it more deeply.

Out of spite, Annie, under an internet chat room, composes a scathing review of "Juliet, Naked," thus angering Duncan further...yet surprisingly attracting one on-line visitor to her corner and in full agreement: the elusive Tucker Crowe himself!

Based in America, we meet former rock star Tucker Crowe (Ethan Hawke), long retired, long out of money and consumed with a seemingly bottomless sea of regrets concerning the direction his life has taken since his one-time level of fame and attention. Currently living rent free in the garage of his ex, Tucker tries, as best as he is able, to attend to the raising of his young son Jackson (played Azhy Robertson) while also mentally preparing himself for becoming a Grandfather, by his daughter Lizzie (Ayoola Smart), one of several children from former lovers.

Reaching out, Tucker and Annie begin a transatlantic e-mail correspondence that will soon offer themselves and all of the major players in each of their lives much needed second chances.

As another film released this year that could easily be perceived as being "small," Jesse Peretz's "Juliet, Naked" is towering in its perceptiveness, empathy, understanding, and meticulous attention to character and behaviors within an experience that is as remarkably "slice-of-life" as anything we have already seen this year in Brett Haley's superb "Hearts Beat Loud" and Bo Burnham's outstanding "Eighth Grade." 

As a romantic comedy, a genre that essentially has all but disappeared from the mainstream multiplexes lately, the film is a strong reminder of what the very best films of this genre could be as the characters are engaging and relatable, the situations they discover themselves within are tangible and the emotions are grounded inside of a reality that is palpable and honest, making the romance something worthy to experience and even root for.

With "Juliet, Naked," you are bound to find elements that would remind you, of course, from both "High Fidelity" and Nick Hornby's beautiful novel About A Boy (1998) as well as the Chris and Paul Weitz film adaptation from 2002. But, I would also point to films as varied as Nora Ephron's "You've Got Mail" (1998) and Sofia Coppola's "Lost In Translation" (2003), as Peretz presents to us deeply lonely, increasingly isolated people who miraculously find each other at the most opportune time. But instead of simply presenting us with a quandary and wrapping everything up inside of a pretty bow, I greatly appreciated just how Peretz took his time to create a delicate, often fragile palate as the pain within the romantic comedy was rightfully given center stage, thus providing the proceedings with an anchor, albeit one that aches.

"Juliet, Naked" is less about the hoped for happy ending and more about the ruts we all find ourselves trapped inside of, sometimes longer than we have ever even realized for ourselves. With this film we are witness to the collective ruts of Annie, Duncan, Tucker, and even the town of Sandcliff itself, all just existing, never moving forwards even one step. 

With regards to the concept of the love triangle, we can see how Tucker Crowe invaded the romance of Annie and Duncan long before he and Annie met in the virtual world. In fact, since Crowe was essentially brought into the relationship by Duncan in the first place, we could even perceive that Crowe was Duncan's first love, as he had been consumed by adoration over the "Juliet" album long before Annie ever entered the picture.

With that, Peretz is able to add considerable layers to the film that explore not only our relationship with art, in this case, music, but also how the internet culture amplifies and validates our feelings, therefore isolating ourselves from those who do not share the same opinions over the art we cherish. 

Yes, we see Duncan finding his nightly solace among his internet friends instead of Annie, who retires to bed alone again and again. But the one extremely telling moment within the film occurs right after Duncan angrily discovers that Annie has listened to the demo version of "Juliet" before  him and he frantically searches for batteries to place into his portable disc player to listen, only to grow angrier at being unable to locate any...until Annie takes batteries from her vibrator and tosses them Duncan's way, making Tucker Crowe the victor.

In a sequence that could have strictly been played for laughs, Peretz (who does indeed deliver those laughs) mines the sequence for something deeper than comedy. He mines for the truth of the situation. For Annie's loneliness, which then delves into depressed resignation and for Duncan, a sense of obsession and fandom that runs towards romantic neglect and even dangerously close to addiction, as his need for self-validation outweighs the relationship he possesses with Annie.

Later in the film, as Duncan is confronted with Tucker Crowe in the flesh, Peretz delves even deeper as we explore the fan's relationship with the art in question as compared and contrasted with the artist and their relationship with their own creations. In this case, both men are correct about their opinions and feelings and neither of them are necessarily wrong about any opposing viewpoints because each men's life experiences have informed the art and what it means to each of them.

As for Tucker, the work represents an experienced pain that has only continued and reverberated through the years, and in ways Duncan could not even begin to comprehend. For Duncan, the pain within the work is one where he can apply to his own life experiences and in doing so, he finds comfort and beauty--such is the nature of art. And yet, Duncan, regardless of anyone else's opinion, including Tucker Crowe himself, has claimed a certain ownership over the art, leaving him isolated within the vacuum of his own interpretations, casting out anyone else who disagrees with him.

And what of Annie and "Juliet, Naked"? Well, having read the novel, it is clear that while Annie writes her negative review of the demo album as a means of retribution to Duncan she honestly hates the work, the very reaction that attracts Tucker to reach out to her in the first place. Yet for the film version, Peretz performs something quite subtle by injecting the possibility that Annie may secretly love the demos, regardless of what she says publicly and on-line. This possibility does indeed inject even more complex layers to her budding relationship with Tucker in regards to her intentions and desires.

For Annie and Tucker's on-line relationship, we have two emotionally lost figures who essentially have noting else left to lose, so why not divulge everything about themselves to each other with a reckless, romantic abandon--especially if they never meet in the real world anyway?  Yet, once they do eventually meet each other in the real world, emotional complexities grow more entangled as their respective pasts, mistakes, fears, foibles, and of course, the life and responsibilities concerning Tucker's son Jackson replace any sense of fantasy, and for that matter, the fantastical nature of romance itself. Annie and especially Tucker are therefore forced to ask extremely hard questions of themselves before they can honestly pursue each other and that level of honestly allows "Juliet, Naked" to ascend to levels of grace that are indeed are within the romantic comedy genre.

Rose Byrne is positively sparkling in the leading role of Annie, as she conveys an intelligence, elegance, warmth and frisky spunk that equals her inner dismay, making her a character that we only wish for her ultimate happiness--yet not necessarily with Duncan or even Tucker, but a happiness found within self-discovery and serious attention towards herself.

Ethan Hawke is unquestionably on a creative roll this year as we have already seen what has to be his career best performance in Paul Schrader's wrenching "First Reformed." While the character of Tucker Crowe feels not too far removed from Hawke's past shaggy dog figures as witnessed in Ben Stiller's "Reality Bites" (1994) and in his collaborations with Richard Linklater, most notably as the divorced Dad in "Boyhood" (2014), what Hawk has achieved in "Juliet, Naked" is nothing short of remarkable.

Throughout his career, Ethan Hawke has always showcased a certain authenticity and as Tucker Crowe, he continues this essential quality, especially as he performs all of his own singing on the soundtrack's expertly crafted songs of this fictional reclusive rock star. Beyond the music, Hawke performs this character from the inside out, unearthing a certain soulfulness that I do not think that I have experienced before from him. Yes, he has always carried a certain swagger, a self-aware intelligence. Yet, this time, with his graying beard, a paunch and the growl in his voice suggesting someone like say, Kris Kristofferson, Ethan Hawke's infuses Tucker Crowe with such earned sadness, a stirring remorse with the litany of his life's errors, especially towards his children, that sometimes feels like melancholic resignation and other times feels like existential paralysis.

Where Annie is bruised, Tucker is all but broken yet both are in need of healing and just may find it in each other. But, with Hawke's richly beautiful performance, we have a character where he, as well as all of us in the audience, wonder if he even deserves someone as lovely as Annie--again a quality that makes "Juliet, Naked" a much deeper experience that it ever needed to be and believe me, we are the better for it.

Jesse Peretz's "Juliet, Naked" gives a tender, knowing and poignant romantic comedy that wisely houses a sincere and pointed commentary about hero worship, fan culture and our relationships with the art we not only love, but the art that shapes us, especially within the internet age. And just maybe that is the true third side of this particular love triangle as presented in this film because when given the choice to exist with someone who can challenge us or within the echo chambers of our own making, what might you choose and what might make you feel more stagnated?

And to that, this warm, lovely, insightful, and sophisticated film just may provide some essential perspectives while also proving itself to being an enormously entertaining time at the movies.

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