The world, it can be safely said, is roughly divided into those people who take a flying leap off a metaphorical cliff, hoping for the best as they sail through the air, and those who tiptoe trepidatiously to the edge, peer over, say “Nope!” and edge away, never to take the plunge.
No approach is better or worse, but Julie, Naked, based on a book of the same name by Nick Hornby, does seem to favour the idea that at least taking that leap, even when you’re not sure where you’re going to land, is worth doing no matter the result.
In this case, of course, being a very clever romantic comedy that uses the genre’s well-worn tropes to its advantage and is never imprisoned to them, the results are ultimately rather delightful but it’s the road to that possibly happy-ever-after that makes for a thoroughly entertaining tale.
Annie Platt (Rose Byrne) has lived in the quaint but dull English seaside town of Sandcliff all her life, the curator of her late father’s museum, a woman in sensible cardigans (her words, not ours) who’s boyfriend Duncan (Chris O’Dowd) is less a dispenser, she ruefully notes, of unconditional love and more a purveyor of distant conditional affection.
Obsessed with a reclusive indie rock artist, Tucker Crowe (Ethan Hawke) who hasn’t released an album in 25 years and of whom little is actually known but about whom speculation is rife – kids with a Swedish princes? Yep! Living on a remote Pennsylvanian farm with a hermit-like beard? MAAAY-BE; OK , yes – Duncan devotes all of his energy, love and time to a man he has never met, and who, let’s be honest, he is unlikely to.
The object of his true affection is, after all, an off-the-grid recluse … or so all the middle-aged men, and they are exclusively male, in his online Tucker Crowe forum believe.
But when Annie opens Duncan’s mail one day, finds a demo CD of Crowe’s “masterpiece” album – Duncan’s is extravagant in his praise, let’s just say – and listens to it finding it wanting (Her take? Why listen to something that’s half-done when you already have the finished product?) , and furthermore, reviews it on Duncan’s blog (to his ire), their relationship undergoes the kind of seismic shift that, in truth, would make a great Tucker Crowe song.
Bit-by-bit, as Duncan falls into an affair with fellow college teacher Gina (Denise Gough) and Annie starts chatting to Tucker who, it turns out, knows Duncan’s blog exists and has some firm ideas on his own artistic output, none of which gel with the majority of the forum’s members, their relationship, already hollowed from within, teeters and falls, leaving Annie with some interesting dilemmas.
Does she jump off the metaphorical cliff she has strenuously avoided for so long, save for her college years in London which she happily admits were the happiest of her life, or play it safe once again, reassembling her life in well-marked, non-threatening fashion? Is there anything to be gained from following her heart?
The screenplay by Tamara Jenkins, Jim Taylor, Phil Alden Robinson and Evgenia Peretz handles this great existential conundrum in ways both winningly lovely and happily nuanced, eschewing some great dramatic epiphany for a series of little “a-ha!” moments that add to a pleasingly realistic, well as realistic as rom-coms gets, portrayal of someone at a crossroads in their life.
Every performance adds weight, humour and heartfelt insight to the willingness of Julie, Naked to question which is better – calculating caution or garrulous impetuosity?
You can’t fault the film for considering both sides of the equation, with Tucker Crowe, who travels to the UK from his home in, yes, Pennsylvania where he lives with his young son Jackson (Azhy Robertson) and the latest of his ex-wives to see his newborn grandchild, a living, breathing Exhibit A of taking far too many drug and alcohol-fuelled chances.
Estranged from four of his five kids, although Lizzie (Ayolla Smart), the one with the unexpected grandchild, is growing slowly, initially-reluctantly closer, and at odds with most of his ex-wives, Tucker hasn’t really benefited from his random life choices, such as they are.
What is pleasing about the film, directed with great care and warmth by Jesse Peretz, is that neither Annie nor Tucker, who are delightful together, their initial awkwardness and discomfit in person soon mirroring their early east-flowing email connection, are cardboard cutout characters.
They feel real and very human, Annie straining to see what lies beyond the cliff edge but uncertain what form her leap should take – events supersede her reluctance thanks to Duncan’s selfishness – and Tucker eager to pull back but not wanting to give up the great plunges into the unknown that have defined his life for good or ill completely, particularly now he has wised up to why it matters what he does with them, not simply that he takes them.
Their coming together, which is draped in the delicious irony of the fact that Annie is inching towards a relationship with Tucker, the real object of Duncan’s affection – the scene where he actually meets illustrates rather starkly, and insightfully, how much of a fan’s relationship to their idol is based on self-serving perception, not reality, giving the film some rather interesting commentary on the nature of obsessive fandom – feels like it could actually happen.
This stands in stark contrast to many rom-coms which although pleasingly escapist (it is the genre’s thematic bread and butter after all), don’t feel even remotely possible.
But Juliet, Naked feels like a tale of two real people at critical junctures in their lives, both of whom are experiencing dawning, slow-moving epiphanies that are marked by the kinds of stumbles and falls, and backward steps and pauses that any of us will recognise in an instant.
Punctuated with some witty, awkward dialogue, sterling performances from all the main performers (Byrne as Annie and Robertson as Jackson are standouts), and a grounded sense of the tug-of-war between playing it safe and going for broke, Juliet, Naked, is an ineffable pleasure, a rom-com with substance and insight that colours its romance with the possible and the real while infusing just enough rose-tinted wonder to make it an aspirationally-pleasing real joy to watch.