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Equal time for emotional evolution in ‘Juliet, Naked’

Dan Webster

"Juliet, Naked" is scheduled to open today at the Magic Lantern. Following is my review of the film, which I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

These days, most movie romances – “Crazy Rich Asians” being a prominent exception – seem to focus exclusively on a woman’s emotional growth. The reason for this: It’s the film industry’s version of gender-based catch-up.

Even a cursory look at cinematic history provides plenty of evidence that a female movie character’s emotional growth traditionally has been considered secondary to whatever her male partner experiences. And when exceptions have occurred, they’ve done so largely because of the screen power exhibited by the actresses involved.

Few directors were ever able to regulate the atmosphere whenever Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis or Rosalind Russell walked into the frame.

Rose Byrne is nothing like those three screen legends. Fortunately, in the romantic comedy “Juliet, Naked,” she doesn’t need to be. Director Jesse Peretz, working from a team-written screenplay adapted from a Nick Hornby novel, cast Byrne to be part of a romantic triangle that includes Ethan Hawke and the comic actor Chris O’Dowd.

And the surprising result is a film that gives equal time to the emotional evolution of all three.

Byrne plays Annie, the director of a museum in an English seaside village. Having returned to her home town to care for her ailing dad, and now – following his death – having taken over his job, Annie’s in a professional rut.

Her personal life isn’t any better. Her longtime boyfriend, the self-centered Duncan (played by O’Dowd), is less interested in Annie than he is in his singular obsession, an American singer-songwriter named Tucker Crowe (played by Hawke).

Though Tucker put out a single album years before and hasn’t been heard of since, Duncan considers him “the most underappreciated figure in rock history.” And in true fan-nerd fashion, he hosts a website devoted to Tucker and his music.

When a package arrives at the house that Annie and Duncan share, Annie opens it and discovers a CD titled “Juliet, Naked,” which just happens to be the acoustic demo versions of the very Tucker Crowe LP that Duncan adores.

When she posts a negative review of the LP on Duncan’s website, it forces the two to face the inevitable: They simply are no longer compatible and maybe never were.

But, and here’s where the film takes a providential twist that, in the hands of a less skilled filmmaker,  might have felt glib: The one person who does like her review is Tucker himself.

Pretty soon Annie and Tucker are emailing each other. And through their back and forth we discover that Tucker has his own faults, including ex-wives, estranged children and a rootless existence that he’s only recently tried to change.

As with all good romances, the road to happiness isn’t smooth. Tucker comes to England, and the sparks with Annie prove real. But life conspires to keep them apart – at least at first.

The main strength of “Juliet, Naked,” then, is its cast. All three principal actors are perfect, with O’Dowd adding his particular comic touch. More important, each character is equally likeable despite flaws that seem as inherent as they feel natural.

Which makes for a refreshing concept: Equality in a contemporary rom-com.

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