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In Reality Bites, Ethan Hawke cemented himself as a reluctant posterboy for Generation X. His character in the film is the ultimate slacker, the sort of loser who would rather condescend to rich people than take their money. The film features the Hawke character playing with his band, and their only song is called “I’m Nuthin.” It is a sort of dirge an aspiring blues singer might write once they realize they have nothing to be sad about.
Hawke has distanced himself from Reality Bites, carving out a diverse roster of roles across all genres, but Juliet, Naked serves as atonement for his Generation X posturing. It is also a warm romantic comedy, the sort that asks little of its audience and gives just a bit extra in return.
Before we meet the Hawke character, we spend time with Annie (Rose Byrne), a young woman who is exasperated by her life in a sleepy English seaside town. She has a dead-end job and lives with her longtime boyfriend Duncan (Chris O’Dowd), a college professor who teaches The Wire to his students (there is an amusing aside where he hands out a cheat-sheet of Baltimore slang). But Duncan’s true obsession is Tucker Crowe, who is played by Hawke: Tucker is a fictional rock musician from the ’90s who disappeared from the lime- light, and still has dozens of obsessive, passionate fans. Imagine what would happen if Jeff Buckley were still alive, and faded into obscurity like Jeff Mangum did for a while.
Juliet, Naked is based on a Nick Hornby novel, and indeed the Duncan character would be at home in High Fidelity, Hornby’s most famous book. He is a manchild in his thirties, crippled by his pop culture obsession, to the point where he is indifferent to Annie’s needs. In fact, Duncan runs the internet’s biggest Tucker Crowe forum, so when he receives a bootleg CD of early Crowe recordings, he is quick to share his findings.
In a desperate salvo to save their relationship—or perhaps out of spite—Annie opens an account on this forum, and writes a scathing review of the recordings. Duncan tries to stay cool, and then something strange happens: The real Tucker Crowe writes Annie an email. They begin a correspondence, and we learn what he has been up to since his last public appearance over 20 years ago.
Both Duncan and Tucker are flawed men, albeit for different reasons. This film has the wisdom to criticize them, not glamorize them, and it accomplishes that by keeping the story firmly in Annie’s perspective. She is curious about Tucker, but not because he was a famous musician. Instead, he is a middle-aged man with a self-deprecating charm who learned about life the hard way. Director Jesse Peretz includes many scenes of Tucker’s upstate New York home, and his shabby existence is more ramshackle than romantic.
Hawke is terrific here, in a performance that is miles away from his astounding work in this year’s First Reformed. As Tucker, he has a relaxed physicality and deadpan delivery that barely conceals his self-loathing. By the time Tucker flies to England, partially to meet Annie and Duncan, the old adage “never meet your idols” comes into play. The same might be said about Annie meeting her pen pal, except neither she nor Tucker can quite deny their chemistry. He is also a decent musician: We learn that Tucker has not performed in decades, so when he is coaxed into playing The Kinks’ “Waterloo Sunset,” the confidence of his performance is all the more surprising.
Peretz, who has directed many episodes of the HBO show Girls, films Juliet, Naked with the same warm colors. He also has no problem recalling that show’s awkward comic timing: There is a great scene where Annie meets Tucker, and they are improbably joined by nearly all his children, along with their mothers. Peretz’s camera carefully weaves through the room so that each person’s entrance is funnier than the last. Most of the comedy is dialogue-based, and the jokes have the wry delivery that is a hallmark of Hornby’s work. Even the inevitable emotional revelations unfold in a gentle way. These characters have lived enough so that betrayals and upheavals do not arrive with much drama.
Juliet, Naked is meant to serve as counter-programming, the cinematic equivalent of a beach read. It is successful on those terms, insofar that it will drift from your memory just like a dog-eared paperback. If the story does not linger, at least the three lead performances have more nuance and humanity required. On top of that, there is one unintentional running joke involving Byrne, who was visibly pregnant while filming. Peretz/Byrne have to be creative about how they frame her body, which is ironic since Annie has some anxiety about whether to have children at all. Her concealed belly is like a metaphor for this film’s appeal. It is another relatable flaw you begrudgingly learn to embrace.
Juliet, Naked opens Friday at Landmark E Street Cinema and Landmark Bethesda Row Cinema.