Charm and likability can paper over even the most bloated of gaping romcom cracks. Sleepless in Seattle, for instance, is stalkerish hokum, but people still adore it. Rose Byrne, star of Jesse Peretz’s new genre offering, Juliet, Naked, has both charm and likability in abundance, so it’s odd just how drab this all feels. Based on a contrived Nick Hornby novel, the film has a ready audience; unfortunately, they’re ready to be a little bored.
Contrary to the film’s indicative title, Byrne is neither called Juliet here, nor appears naked. Instead, the Bridesmaids and Spy star plays seaside – filming took place in Ramsgate – curator Annie Platt, the long-suffering girlfriend of inane fanboy Duncan (Chris O’Dowd), a film lecturer whose obsession with ‘the most seminal and yet unsung figure of alternative rock’ veers horribly into unhealthy territory. That’s certainly how Annie sees his unrequited adoration in any case. Fifteen years of coming second place in Duncan’s affections – ‘It’s become clear that all along he’s been in love with another man’ – have left her veneer of contentedness at risk of cracking, heightened by a dawning regret that they decided to never have children.
In reality, Duncan’s icon and Annie’s bane, Tucker Crowe (Ethan Hawke), is a raggedy waster, father to a wealth of estranged children, and living in the garage of one of his less bitter exes. When an old demo of his resurfaces – an unfinished album titled ‘Juliet, Naked’ – Annie is driven by frustration with her fatuous boyfriend to posting a stinging review on Duncan’s blog for the ‘Crowe-curious’. After a reprimand from Duncan, Annie is shocked to find polar praise from Tucker himself landing in her inbox. It’s not long, then, before the pair find themselves engaged in a heartfelt correspondence, not unlike that of Love, Simon. Each feels more able to unspool to the other than they have in years.
Whilst such a premise is enticing, what seems to have gone wrong here is that Peretz has completely misread his script. On paper, a film about a despondent woman, with one jerk boyfriend and zany sister, who meets an older man beset by personal issues screams old fashioned romantic comedy. On screen, Peretz has produced something much more in sync with the bleak dramedies Juliet, Naked premiered alongside at Sundance – that Mecca of depressing indies. The effect is a film that lacks much needed energy, warmth and inclusivity. At one point, cardigan-wearing Annie is compared to Bridget Jones – ‘the most depressing woman on the planet’ – but this is Bridget as modelled on Meg Ryan, channelling Julia Roberts. Amazingly, she still manages to be more sympathetic as a character than Tucker woe-is-me Crowe.
O’Dowd feels miscast as the boyfriend we’re supposed to root against, being funny and too inherently likeable, whilst the film squanders a supporting cast of Nina Sosanya, Phil Davis and Denise Gough. Lily Brazier does at least give the thankless role of inept joker some welly and succeeds in raising the most of a small handful of laughs: ‘Nothing screams repressed lesbian like a husband and two kids’. It’s not that the film tries and fails to be funny, the problem is that Peretz doesn’t really see Juliet, Naked as the comedy his audience expects and thus plays things onerously straight. His one concession to slapstick sees Byrne disable a fire alarm with her frying pan and it’s an early highlight.
There are, amid the broader strokes, a selection of touching interactions to be found here, not to mention an ultimately winning turn from Byrne – even in spite of the problems concerning her character. If you can believe in any of this – many, I concede, have – this could be a treat. Two days after Halloween, however, it felt like a trick to me.