Review: In ‘Juliet, Naked,’ a delightful (if unfinished) updating of the love triangle trope

We all have idols. Human monuments – whether in the public’s consciousness or merely our own individual headspaces – who we venerate in blogs or by internal means.

But in those obsessions, do we ever stop to monitor ourselves, and consider how we believe they influence the world don’t mirror how they perceive themselves? Have we ever thought about what we’d say if we ever met them, or worse, if they alleged our perceptions are off-target?

That’s one of a few simultaneously interpersonal and intrapersonal conflicts explored in Jesse Peretz’s “Juliet, Naked.” It’s also arguably its most interesting, interweaving adoration and comically exaggerated (or perhaps not?) reverence, though the one Peretz spends the least amount of time deconstructing.

Still, that doesn’t stop the director from offering a charming breeze of a romantic-comedy, one buoyed by its three delightfully eccentric leads who find themselves in the same stages of middle-aged life with varying degrees of accepting the fact.

In small-town England, we meet Annie and Duncan (Rose Byrne and Chris O’Dowd, respectively) a couple stuck in a quagmire of a relationship 15 years in. That’s thanks in no small part to Duncan’s real partner being his ever-growing obsession with Ethan Hawke’s Tucker Crowe, an American has-been musician who Duncan studies with as much ferocity as he can muster.

In a reality that confounds him, Duncan finds himself compensating for the lack of love the rest of the world seems to share, worshipping a rock star that’s more on par with a forgettable one-hit wonder than Tom Petty.

Annie, suffice to say, is increasingly put off by Duncan’s teenage-like infatuation, to the point of developing her own annoyance-fueled opinions of Tucker Crowe (in this world, only mentioning the man by his full name will do). If anything, her frustration is understated; Duncan will be quicker to jump on his blog to review new versions of decades-old Tucker Crowe songs before sharing that intimacy with Annie while they watch movies from couches on opposite sides of the room.

But at this point in her life, she finds it easier to endure than to begin again.

Soon, though, in a serendipitous connection, Annie and Tucker Crowe start corresponding via email from across the Atlantic. Their pen-pal’ing is one fewer standard deviation from being an affair when the washed-up Tucker flies to England and meets Annie, at the same time greeting the arrival of his grandson.

At the same time, Duncan begins to move on from his relationship with Annie in his own ways, and, before long, a love triangle of a new caliber emerges – one of a much more whimsical kind, with incredulity at its core where infatuation would normally reside.

The ensuring tug-of-war is an endearing one, one made more complex by the factor of fame and unexpected sparks.

For all the archetypes the rom-com genre is perpetually in danger of falling into, “Juliet, Naked” stands out by being remarkably fleet-footed, perhaps a bit too much so. The film’s team of writers (three of them, according to IMDB) execute their updating of the love triangle dilemma to hilarious and more-or-less believable ends, using its strong cast as the ticket to an appropriately enjoyable 90 minutes in the theater.

Byrne is easily sympathetic as Annie, bouncing between romantic hopelessness and profane exasperation on a level that’s fewer notches below her turn in the “Neighbors” films as you might expect. 2018 continues to be a stellar year for Hawke, the graciously gruff Tucker attempting to work on the things that matter the most in life.

O’Dowd might be the standout of the bunch, embracing his outlandishness as a foil to his idol’s comparatively collected knowledge of where he is in life. O’Dowd’s is a performance not as nuanced as his costars, and certainly Duncan is easier to condemn, but it’s hard to look past the roots of his vulnerability.

The script works to each actors’ strengths, to be sure. As the story unfolds and becomes an at-times unflinching reminiscing over missed opportunities and pessimistic outlooks, it remains hopeful in its prognosis, while Byrne, Hawke and O’Dowd stay the course for their respective characters and their problems. That being said, “Juliet, Naked” speeds toward a bit of an untidy finish, and another 15 minutes or so would have been welcomed so as to see where our trio ultimately ends up, despite there admittedly being enough clues for us to form our own conclusions.

Perhaps the screenplay’s greatest victory is in using the fantastical notion of meeting an aging musician as an avenue to much more universal themes, including parentage and making up for lost time and lost relationships. It’s never too late to begin again, “Juliet, Naked” teaches us, and not just when it comes to our dreams.

Peretz’s direction ensures that the film’s beating heart is uncovered with the appropriate mixture of tenderness and amusement. At the same time, he makes an admirable, though unvarnished, attempt at connecting the understated majesty of unfinished songs to relationships lacking in their legitimacy. What are demos to chart-topping tunes rooted in heartbreak if not an attempt to reconcile with our pasts, to construct fulfillment from despair?

Perhaps “Juliet, Naked’s” real message – coated in all its zaniness – is that our autobiographical melodies sound most beautiful when they’re formed from rubble.

 

 

“Juliet, Naked” is rated R for language

Starring: Rose Byrne, Chris O’Dowd, Ethan Hawke

Directed by Jesse Peretz

2018

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Review: Chaos and authority clash in surreal ‘Madeline’s Madeline’

There’s a common misconception about filmmaking 18 years into the century which the exceptionally bold “Madeline’s Madeline” seeks to destroy: That films have to guide the audience through its thoughts and preconceptions.

Most of the time that hand-holding results in muted climaxes, or worse—the all-important “missing of the point.” That’s fine and all in a Hollywoodscape where directors insist moviegoers on forming their own conclusions as they leave the theater (or close the Netflix app), but writer-director Josephine Decker’s ostensibly small, but monumental, film blasts that atavistic notion to oblivion. Continue reading →

Review: In ‘Three Identical Strangers,’ you only think you know what you’re in for

We typically enter documentaries in a different mindset, a different approach than with typical Hollywood fare.

Familiarity bypasses anticipation not by way of absent excitement, but rather because we expect to delve deeper into a subject we’re already at least somewhat familiar with. Earlier this year, the melancholic “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” underwent that route to excellent ends.

“Three Identical Strangers,” however, defies that expectation. If you know this story, chances are you only know how it begins. As has become customary in the age of instant gratification and mistaking 280 characters on Twitter for a news story, we rarely follow up on the flavor of the 5-minute trend – and that’s where the film seizes its chance to captivate. Continue reading →

Review: Boots Riley announces his presence with authority and absurd satire in ‘Sorry To Bother You’

There’s a moment early in the third act of Boots Riley’s “Sorry To Bother You” when the writer-director crosses a line.

It’s not the line, but only because there are several borders to increasingly absurd territory over the film’s runtime. It’s not completely non-sequitor, because anything less might stall the plot’s exponentially batshit crazy momentum.

And you can’t quite argue against it, because it’s a plot development that might hue quite close to normalcy—at least that’s what we come to believe after spending some time in Riley’s head. Continue reading →

Review: In ‘Darkest Hour,’ a resplendent Gary Oldman is the highlight, but not its sole strength

The year is 1940. Hitler’s Nazi regime is forging a merciless trail across Europe. France is under siege. England is backed into a corner both metaphorically and, in the case of the 300,000 British soldiers stranded on the beaches of Dunkirk, literally.

If you watched Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk” over the summer, you know the story and you know what’s at stake for these soldiers. But what you may not know about is the chaos unfolding at Parliament. Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain has been pushed out for a replacement much less suitable for the office, not to mention at wartime – the easy-to-scrutinize Winston Churchill.

Churchill may be commonly discussed in high school textbooks, and cited in epigraphs of WWII videogames, but as told in “Darkest Hour,” he was just a benchwarmer until peace negotiations could begin. Continue reading →

Review: In ‘Shape of Water,’ beauty saves the beast. No verbiage necessary.

For 20 years, Guillermo Del Toro has found success in the bizarre and carved himself a niche in the eclectic. He’s done more than anyone (not named Peter Jackson) to create a spot for fantasy in contemporary cinema, with 2006’s piercingly original “Pan’s Labyrinth” serving as the crown jewel of his catalog.

The imaginative Mexican director’s latest effort, though, makes a strong claim for the crown. A more character-driven story than anything he’s undertaken before, “The Shape of Water” is simultaneously a departure from Del Toro’s unfettered imagination and a showcase of the filmmaker at the height of his technical powers.

The fantastical has always been Del Toro’s forte, but “Shape of Water” operates as proof that he can tell a spellbinding story while leaving nightmarish creatures on the bench, while also trading mysticism for a previously untapped amount of realism. Continue reading →

Review: ‘Last Jedi’ is an epic in the best and worst of ways

The “Star Wars” franchise, by its very nature, demands that high expectations be asked of it.

While writer-director Rian Johnson’s first offering to the world’s biggest entertainment vehicle is undoubtedly the popcorn flick of the year many have been looking forward to, it’s hard to shake the feeling that the episodic Skywalker saga is in danger of going into cruise control.

In terms of blockbuster action, it’s an oversaturated blast to witness. Narratively, though, it struggles to make the jump into lightspeed.

Johnson takes the reins from J.J. Abrams, cutting down on the nostalgia factor in the process. While Abrams’s story created new conflicts and heroes to root for, Johnson focuses on the introspective journeys of three in particular – Rey, Luke and Kylo Ren. Continue reading →

Review: ‘The Disaster Artist’ brings humanity to one of cinema’s biggest running gags

“You can laugh, you can cry, you can express yourself. But please don’t hurt each other.”

Tommy Wiseau has become known to say that when appearing at screenings of his 2003 disasterpiece, “The Room.”

Now, after 14 years, it’s near impossible to get through “The Disaster Artist” – Wiseau’s biopic and the story behind the greatest worst movie ever made – without laughing, crying, smiling, recoiling or having any other kind of visceral reaction.

For a film that radiates irony through the very fact that it was made, and made very well, that experience must bring it all full circle for Wiseau and his cult hit to rule all cult hits. For years he was the butt of a joke, sometimes even in on it. But thanks to James Franco, his story is now an unexpectedly inspiring one, a seemingly hyberbolic but very real ode to reaching for the stars – even if we can barely lift our arms above our head. Continue reading →

Review: Pixar’s ‘Coco’ is visually gorgeous, surprisingly grounded and vaguely formulaic

After over two decades and nearly 20 films, it’s refreshing for Pixar to provide its most grounded premise yet.

Following sustained success by way of talking bugs, talking toys, talking cars, talking fish, talking emotions, talking rats and “talking” robots, something about a Dia de Los Muertos-centric story featuring human characters (and, yes, talking humanoid skeletons) feels much more relatable, like Pixar declaring a coup upon itself.

But then again, that was the point of “Coco” – to showcase a world with more connections to reality than any other Pixar offering before it, and to flesh out that world with the humanity the animation giant has the reputation of conjuring. Continue reading →

Review: Saoirse Ronan powers the ‘Juno’ for a new generation as ‘Lady Bird’

At some point while watching Greta Gerwig’s fantastic “Lady Bird,” I managed to pull myself out of its welcoming hypnotism to question myself: “How is Gerwig pulling this off?”

In a tight, taut and splendidly radiant 94 minutes, the film not just touches on a remarkable amount of subjects, but deftly explores seemingly every thread that makes up the sometimes horrid and sometimes wonderful collage of everyone’s senior year in high school.

I talked the experience over with my two friends afterward, and it was almost immediately and abundantly clear how a different one of those threads resonated with us the most – based on our own background. Continue reading →