Love, the Hard Way: JULIET, NAKED and DESTINATION WEDDING

By James Kenney. Originally published by WhatchaReading.com

Jesse Peretz’s JULIET, NAKED, based on a Nick Hornby novel, and Victor Levin’s DESTINATION WEDDING were both advertised as frothy romantic comedies.  The posters feature attractive people smiling at each other, happy as clams. JULIET’s premise is that the frustrated wife of a guy obsessed with a cult singer from the 1990s, unexpectedly begins a relationship with the reclusive singer. DESTINATION WEDDING puts together the jilted ex-girlfriend of a groom and his misanthropic brother and one presumes despite initial loathing they will fall for each other.  Both reasonable premises for romantic frivility, featuring appealing casts: Rose Byrne and Ethan Hawke in JULIET, and enduring 80s icons Keanu Reeves and the troubled-but-resurgent Winona Ryder in WEDDING.

Well, the films deliver, and they don’t.

JULIET, NAKED, in its reasonable efforts to be demure and adult, has a curious feeling of having most of the good romantic stuff happen off-screen.  The film is interesting in its efforts to burst some romantic clichés, with Hawke’s mysterious reclusive Tucker Crowe proving no Eddie (from the Cruisers) but instead a bit of a sad sack, with multiple kids from multiple partners, living in an ex’s garage and doing his best to raise his most recent child.  He holds his own music and past in no regard and responds positively to Byrne’s hostile, negative review of his demo recording, one that her husband worships.

The film ends up not really being about romance at all, but about the slowly crushing weight of past mistakes, with a few sheepish forays into cute-romantic-comedy-Richard-Curtis-type material.  Hawke has really cemented his status as top indie actor of the decade with his ongoing commitment to serious material and general avoidance of superhero flicks, while Rose Byrne is always a welcoming presence and does fine here. Chris O’Dowd is such a convincingly narcissistic, revoltingly sensitive presence that you really worry Byrne’s going to hook up with him again, as the film doesn’t seem to want to make it easy for Hawke and Byrne.

So JULIET is interesting, not least because it’s more about depression than love, but it’s not so profound I can rise above the fact that a little more romance might have been pleasant and welcome.  The film doesn’t seem to have a song in its wounded heart, as it so much wants to good-naturedly focus on disappointment and resentment for its first two-thirds, that when there is a moment of potential rebirth and happiness for its characters, sure enough, it’s handled off-screen.  JULIET, NAKED is smart enough, well acted, and never boring; still it feels like someone singing an offbeat romantic song, but when you look closer, you realize they’re only mouthing the words.

DESTINATION WEDDING is odder, a piece that obviously feels like an off-off Broadway play, in that the two leads are the only characters that speak, and most scenes involve long takes of Reeves and Ryder sitting at a table or on a bed or in a plane talking, talking, talking.  This is not unappealing, as they are  attractive actors, neither having had much opportunity to play comedy in recent years, and Reeves brings his still durable hangdog pensive look that has helped sustain him as an action hero in the JOHN WICK films, and Ryder brings a wounded-bird quality  to her wounded-bird character. How can anyone cognizant of both her talent and early 21st century troubles not be rooting for her?

The problem lies in this really feels like it should be one of the stories in a larger CALIFORNIA SUITE type work, in that focusing exclusively on these two, we’re trapped with their rather dour, cynical view of life, and, either daringly or stupidly, the characters never really become more appealing as the film progresses.  The film seems to suggest these two are so damaged they might as well be together because who else could handle them, and that’s an idea, but it’s too well executed.  Towards the end, Ryder’s character has revealed a bit of humanity, wishing to believe there might be a future for them, and Reeves stubbornly insists they have no future whatsoever, and I found myself nodding in agreement with him.  There are some laughs and fans of the two leads will find pleasure in this as an acting exercise, which might prove enough.  Again, I wasn’t bored, despite being trapped with only these two characters, which is a testament to Reeves and Ryder’s skill and appeal, and proves writer director Levin is not untalented, because I’ve often bailed on films like this before.

But they’re not quite “I’d listen to them sing the phone book” actors, and I wish Levin had more convincingly allowed them to open up a bit more in the second half and exhibit some kind of quality (even if it’s just genuine loneliness) that would make us want to see these two kids stick it out.  But Reeves particularly never really has a moment of grace or epiphany, just occasionally saying a nice enough thing to Ryder that he delays the kick in the teeth he mostly seems to deserve. They are two mouthy miserable characters, and its to the actors’ credit that they’re convincing, but mostly DESTINATION WEDDING is another curio in the JET LAG and CROSS MY HEART sub-genre of two-character romances focusing on people who hate each other but eventually find common ground.  The fact that WEDDING seems to suggest the final coupling is one of mostly desperate resignation as opposed to true romantic love might be its most thought-provoking and yet least appealing aspect. The film doesn’t scold or complain about its scolding, complaining characters, but it doesn’t do quite enough to make me care about their damaged, diminished worlds.  Still, it’s an interesting curio, but like JULIET, NAKED, it may be the type of film to cause curdled arguments between couples as opposed to cuddled kisses.

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