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: 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: The ambitions of ‘Sing’ don’t match those of its characters

Maybe in any other year, Garth Jennings’ “Sing” would rise to the top of the animated crop. But with its holiday release, when many in the audience has experienced “Zootopia,” “Finding Dory” and “Moana,” “Sing” subsequently falters against the heavy expectations we might unconsciously place upon it.

But even when watching “Sing” on its own merits, its notes still fall flat. It’s an entry that, with its overabundance of characters and storylines, doesn’t wrap up in a way that isn’t predictable or particularly memorable, either.

The film’s boasts a pretty impressive cast, with Matthew McConaughey, Seth MacFarlane, Scarlett Johnansson and others lending their voices to animated counterparts. Those include Buster, a naïve and overambitious theater-owning koala, the self-indulgent mouse Mike, and Johnny, the gorilla who participates in his family’s criminal ways when all he wants to do is sing.

None of these narratives are particularly new, and, unfortunately, neither are their conclusions. The bigger problem – and the biggest of the movie’s downfalls – is that these are only three in at least six or seven storylines that are all seemingly at odds with each other for the spotlight. It seems like Buster should be the protagonist, along with his quest for redemption, but if it is, it’s hard to feel any sympathy for him.

sing-tiff-illumination-entertainment

As far as the other characters, they are frustrating in their own motivations that seem consistently forced on the screenplay’s part. Daddy issues, stage fright, having to choose between possible superstardom or current responsibilities – it’s all here. The difference is that the characters feel like they are always choosing the path that obviously leads to trouble down the road.

And that’s without mentioning that a prosthetic body part of probably the most charming scaled creature we see onscreen tips the first domino that sets the overarching plot in motion.

But most people might not go to “Sing” looking for innovative storytelling. They’re banking on the nostalgia of hearing some of their favorite tunes. The good news for those viewers: They’ll get what they came for, and then some.

Especially in the first act, where the movie’s setup amounts to little more than an assault on the senses as we move from character to character setting up their stories; and then eventually from song to song in one particular sequence that is headache-inducing in how much it throws at you.

I’m not saying you won’t be able to tell songs apart – you will, and one of your favorites perhaps even makes it into “Sing’s” over-inflated final act.

But for a movie that seemingly is supposed to be a reflection on the power of individual dreams and the songs that are involved on the way, “Sing” sacrifices charm for cheap attempts at empathy when so many other animated offerings this year have excelled at providing both.

 

“Sing” is rated PG for some rude humor and mild peril 

Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon, Seth MacFarlane and Scarlett Johansson 

Directed by Garth Jennings 

2016

Begin Again will delight music enthusiasts, and satisfy the regular moviegoer

At its simplest, Begin Again – directed by John Carney and starring Mark Ruffalo and Keira Knightley – is a celebration of music.

But as the film shows, even something simple can be beautiful, like an acoustic ballad. And although held back mildly by a middle act which leaves a tad more to be desired, Begin Again takes that message to heart with believable performances and heartfelt and heartbreaking tunes which do a good job telling the story on their own.

Ruffalo plays Dan, an out-of-his-prime music executive who is searching for authenticity in a New York music scene that is being fueled more and more by money. It becomes quickly apparent, as these stories usually go, that he hasn’t put as much effort into his family as he should, but rather is focusing on his job too much to no avail.

Enter heartbroken songwriter Gretta, played by Keira Knightley, who doesn’t aspire of stardom. Her sole desires were to help spark hubby Dave Kohl’s career in the music biz…until he began showing signs that the his new lifestyle isn’t up to par with her.

Dan hears Gretta play at a chance encounter that is much like a different kind of love at first sight, and the two embark on creating a wholly unique album together.

Dan and Gretta share their musical interests in the always pretty locales of New York City.

Dan and Gretta share their musical interests in the always pretty locales of New York City.

Don’t be mistaken, this is a story reminiscent of many we’ve seen before, but the way Carney focuses on the music and songs – more specifically, the stories behind the songs – is where he gets off. Begin Again teaches a lot about music and the many things it is. It is a remedy and a poison. It is all encompassing and intimate. It is diverse and it is unifying. And the best, most relatable songs are the ones with emotional backstories.

Diehard music geeks, especially of the acoustic indie variety, will have an absolute ball with Begin Again. Where the average person will see a large portion of the film, in which the album is being made, as repetitive and middling, musicians will be able to relate to the intimacy of the process of producing music, and how it affects those involved. Begin Again is astutely aware of its priorities; to show how music can be cheerful even when it’s sad. Some moviegoers will understand that better than others, and that’s okay.

Ruffalo (Now You See Me, The Avengers) is superb in his role. Always engaged, lively and believable, his joy at finding real music is easy to see, as is the pain when talking about his past. Ruffalo also shows to have some great timing with comedic deliveries, and doesn’t have to be saying a word to show he is one of the more underrated actors in Hollywood today. Knightley (Pirates of the Caribbean, Atonement) also puts in a memorable performance as a young Nora Jones-type singing of lost love and various other melancholy themes. Who knew she could sing?!

Maroon 5 frontman Levine brings his musical chops to Begin Again as rising star Dave Kohl.

Maroon 5 front man Levine brings his musical chops to Begin Again as rising star Dave Kohl.

In the supporting cast, Adam Levine, who knows a little something about the music industry, makes his big screen debut as a rockstar who has his priorities jumbled. He’s right in his natural habitat as Dave Kohl, at least when he’s singing. In the more human parts that require him to actually act, he’s relatively stiff as cardboard, never really one who we particularly want to be together with Gretta. Cee Lo Green and Mos Def have appearances in the movie that are much more memorable than Levine’s extended cameo.

Where Begin Again succeeds is exemplified by its third act and ultimate ending. It isn’t overly done as some movies these days choose to go; Carney knows that too much of a good thing doesn’t always work. The ending doesn’t succumb to predictability, and it’s humble and intimate. It’s simple, and it works to great effect.

 

In a Nutshell

Led by strong lead performances of both the acting and musical variety, Begin Again explores the essence and strength of music to elevate itself above the regular clichés.

8.0 / 10 or Worth your time and money in a Summer of loud blockbusters, and you even get a couple new tunes to check out!

 

Begin Again is rated R for language 

Starring: Mark Ruffalo, Keira Knightley, Adam Levine

Directed by: John Carney

2014