Film Review – Juliet, Naked (2018)

We all have our heroes and idols.  And chat rooms and websites mean we can share that adoration with others, never dreaming that we’ll actually meet the object of our affection.  After all, they say you should never meet your heroes.  But that’s exactly what happens to Duncan (Chris O’Dowd) in Juliet, Naked.  Except that when he meets his musical idol, he doesn’t believe he’s who he says he is.  And, when he tries to put things right, it only makes matters worse.

So this is a film about fandom and obsession, right?  Only partly ….. Duncan is in a long term relationship with girlfriend Annie (Rose Byrne) but there’s a third person involved: Tucker Crowe (Ethan Hawke), that retired singer/songwriter who Duncan worships.  He runs a website dedicated to him, spending hours listening to his music and discussing outlandish theories with other fans.  Annie and Duncan eventually split up, but when she and Crowe connect online, he comes over to the UK and they decide to meet up.

Despite the hero-worship theme, this is really intended to be a film about second chances, about Annie grasping the opportunity to change her life after years of putting up with somebody who treats her as second best.  But that’s not what we get.  And the reason is Chris O’Dowd, who is such a scene-stealer as Duncan – his moments of embarrassment and social awkwardness are specialities – that he skews the film and what should be Annie’s story actually becomes his.  And it’s like that right from the very start, when we see the introductory video on his website, which gives this frothy rom-com a warm giggle of an opener.

Director Jesse Peretz, a name associated with TV hits such as Glow and Orange Is The New Black, has been a touch over-ambitious with this offering, adding to the mix themes like absent fathers and the wisdom of having children.  When he moves onto this territory, the narrative flounders and the ideas are under-developed compared to the rest of the film.  It just makes you long for that lighter touch, which is much more his forte, and for more of those laughs.   He does, however, get good performances from his triangle of actors. Ethan Hawke, sporting a straggly beard and something of a paunch, continues his purple patch of form and makes it look all too easy.  It was ever thus.  Rose Byrne makes an appealing and sympathetic Annie but it’s O’Dowd who is the film’s biggest plus point and its Achilles heel.  His performance is so entertaining that the film is totally upended.

The result is that what we see on the screen probably isn’t what Peretz originally had in mind.  Surprises are no bad thing, but when a performance is allowed to dominate a film to this extent, it becomes problematic.  Not that watching Juliet, Naked isn’t a pleasant experience.  That warm fuzzy feeling is there, as is the humour and the romance, plus a more serious side as well.  But this is a film that’s lost its way and, even if you come out smiling, there’ll be a large question mark floating around in your mind.

Freda Cooper | [rating=3]

Comedy, Romance, Drama | UK, 2 November (2018) | Universal | Dir. Jesse Peretz | Ethan Hawke, Rose Byrne, Chris O’Dowd, Alex Clatworthy and Phil Davis.