Of Men and Nice Guys in “Juliet, Naked”

Juliet, Naked is a 2018 film directed by Jesse Peretz, written by Evgenia Peretz, Jim Taylor, Tamara Jenkins and Phil Alden Robinson, and it is based on the novel of the same name by Nick Hornby. It stars Rose Byrne, Ethan Hawke and Chris O’Dowd.

It tells the story of Annie (Byrne), a woman bored and unhappy with her life, who is -and has been for the past 15 years- in an unfulfilling, dull, long-term relationship with Duncan (O’Dowd). Duncan is obsessed with obscure singer-songwriter Tucker Crowe (Hawke), who 25 years ago wrote and recorded an album called Juliet, and disappeared from public life. A newly discovered demo record from Crowe’s album arrives at Annie’s and Duncan’s door. Duncan, who runs a blog dedicated to Crowe’s music and theories about his life, promptly posts about it online. Annie, who is tired of having to listen to Tucker Crowe, writes a negative review and is contacted by the artist himself. Tucker agrees with her, and so starts an online friendship that could turn into something more.

Let’s get one thing out of the way: we all know where the movie is going as soon as Ethan Hawke (whom I love almost as much as I love Rose Byrne) shows his bearded face. We know how this movie will end, but that is not the point. The point is the story, and -to me, at least- it is a good story. Now that we’ve cleared that up, let’s talk about the men.

Spoiler warning: If you haven’t seen the movie and don’t want absolutely anything spoiled, go and watch it and then come back

Duncan, the nice guy

Annie is in a relationship with, what we nowadays call, a Nice Guy. In case you don’t know, a Nice Guy (sometimes also stylized as Nice Guy™) is a man who does not behave in an overtly aggressive or “bad” way, but who expects something in return for his being nice. He thinks the world, or society, or women “owe him” for being such a nice guy. We’ve all seen men like that: they complain about being in the “friendzone”, they are always right, they just know better, and they are so nice that people -especially women- should reward them for their actions. A Nice Guy would never hit you or explicitly insult you, he is nice. See? Now you have to love him, because he’s nice!

And that is exactly what Duncan is. He is not conventionally attractive, but he’s not unattractive either. He is reasonably smart, he teaches at a university and gets along well with his students and colleagues, he has hobbies and pays attention to details, and he usually lets Annie be. Whenever he gets angry and yells at Annie, he apologizes. It also seems like it doesn’t happen very often, unless it is related to his devotion to Tucker Crowe.

At the beginning of the film, he gets very angry when Annie listens to Tucker Crowe’s demo before him. Boy, he does not like it, at all! He feels betrayed and angry that she would dare to listen to it before him, when she knows, she knows how much Tucker Crowe means to him. But what I find more interesting is what happens right before the argument: Duncan comes home and notices that Annie is listening to something new. She repeatedly tries to explain to him the situation, possibly knowing what his reaction will be. Duncan is in a good mood, so he simply ignores her and tries to guess what she’s listening to. She asks him over and over again to let her explain, but he keeps walking and talking over her, at some point he shushes her and tells her to “shut up quick, [he] wants to guess”. When he can’t, he asks her what it is, and she finally tells him. He gets angry and yells and ends up leaving the house to listen to the demo alone, in peace. It is only hours later that he comes back and apologizes to her for acting stupid.

This situation of Duncan talking over Annie and blatantly ignoring her happens several times throughout the movie, although it doesn’t always end in an argument because usually Annie stops trying and simply lets him have it his way. This includes one key difference in their lives: she wants to have children, and he doesn’t. She didn’t want to when they started dating, but now she does, and he dismisses her wishes completely.

I enjoyed Duncan’s character a lot, and Chris O’Dowd plays him wonderfully. It is not often that I see such a self-centred, entitled, obnoxious man who is not rewarded by the movie for being like that. He sounds awful -and he is- but he is not too different from other beloved and admired fictional characters. Lots of stories have this kind of character. The difference is that the narrative frames them as heroes. Here are some examples:

  1. Twilight’s Edward Cullen. He is selfish, possessive, controlling, pretentious and constantly manipulates Bella into doing what he wants, but, in the story, he is an object of desire. Bella forgives him because everything he does, he does it out of love!
  2. Guardians of the Galaxy’s Peter Quill is another good example. This one is a little different because, although he is the hero of the story and his childishness and selfishness are portrayed as lovable flaws, he learns -albeit very slowly- to be a better person, and he doesn’t get the girl explicitly because of his immaturity. (Note: this post was written before Avengers: Infinity War)
  3. La La Land’s Sebastian. This is a truly awful character, but we still are expected to love him because he is played by Ryan Gosling and because he is a free spirit, a true artist. The truth is, he is a horrible human being. He mistreats anyone who doesn’t share his interests or his views, and he looks down on anyone who doesn’t conform to his idea of what “true” jazz is, which is pretty much everyone. He is an entitled, self-absorbed, obnoxious character, but he is rewarded by the plot anyway.
    No, he doesn’t get the girl either, but he didn’t really, really want her in the first place (nor she him). His dream was to have a jazz bar of his own, and he gets just that (just like her dream was to be a big actress, which she becomes). He didn’t really put in the work, he complained every step of the way, he alienated everyone willing to put up with him, and he still achieved his dream.

Duncan is exactly like that, but he is not framed as a hero, nor portrayed as an object of desire. He is shown exactly the way he is, and he is terrible.

There’s one thing that happens in the movie that I understand, but kinda wish hadn’t happened. Since Duncan’s awfulness might go over some heads and because we need a reason for the usually conforming Annie to leave him, he cheats on her. I understand why the movie needs him to cheat, but I kinda wish that he hadn’t. I kinda wish the movie had let him just be awful in his own way and that Annie had made the decision to leave him on her own, because she finally accepted that they weren’t happy. Nevertheless, the cheating is the big push that Annie needs and if there’s one amazing thing to come out of it is how he confesses and his reason for confessing. The confession is peak Nice Guy: He comes clean, not because he wants her to know the truth, not because she deserves basic respect, but just so he can feel better about himself.

Tucker, the Broken Man

On the other side, we have Tucker Crowe, the artist who got his heart broken 25 years ago and wrote an entire album about it, inspiring hundreds of brokenhearted men who saw themselves in his music.

We find Tucker living in the garage of his ex-wife’s house, taking care of his youngest child and waiting for the arrival of one daughter, who is coming from London. He has a bunch of children that he never sees, and they all have a different mother. Tucker is a recovering alcoholic, and he is utterly disappointed with his life. However, he takes care of his young son with love and devotion, they spend a lot of time together, and he tries to answer to every single question that the boy asks. Tucker is open about his dislike for his music, although he refuses to say why, he doesn’t shy away from telling people that he is screwed up, and he is, by all means, a loser.
But here’s the important thing about Tucker: he is a loser trying to be better.

Tucker is the opposite of Duncan. He is not successful or popular, he is just broken. He is conscious of his mistakes and his sins, and he carries them with him wherever he goes. But he tries. He tries to be a good father to his little boy, he is no longer drinking, when he starts exchanging emails with Annie, he listens to her and is honest about not being able to give her any advice because he has a history of making the worst decisions, and once he meets Annie in person when he goes to England, he is inspired to be better. She’s not the one to change him though, he does it all on his own.

Spoiler warning: From here on, we will talk about the very end of the movie.

Tucker and Annie have feelings for each other and even share a kiss, but they don’t get together and Tucker goes back to the United States. A year goes by before they see each other again. When they finally meet, we see Tucker waiting for Annie at a café. This time, he looks a lot better. His hair is combed, his beard is tidy, and he looks happier. We as an audience know that he went and took care of himself first and only then came back to Annie. In the year of our Lord 2019, when we still get movies about how “the right girl will fix him”, it’s refreshing to see a movie where the guy fixes himself before going to see about a girl.

After the movie ends, we get a credits-scene where Duncan is seen complaining on his blog about Tucker’s new album. He is visibly disappointed and lists some of the reasons why this is: “We have a song about reading in the afternoon, we have a song about home-grown green beans, there’s a little [commentary] expanding on the joys of being a step-father! I mean, in short, we have a tragedy!”

He goes on to complain about other things and you get the impression that he also resents Tucker for getting together with Annie, but I think this first list says a lot about both characters. Duncan’s obsession with Tucker comes from listening to music that was written by a young man who got dumped and who wrote “insipid, self-pitying songs about Julie [the actual name of the woman] breaking [his] heart” (as Tucker himself puts it). The songs are about him and his suffering, regardless of what Julie thought or did or why she broke up with him.

Tucker Crowe grew out of his self-centred self, he stopped making himself out to be the victim, he evolved. And it’s interesting to see how the music that he produces once he’s made peace with his past, once he’s actively trying to be a good father to all of his children and a good man for Annie, the music that he creates out of an emotionally stable life is rejected by Duncan.

The contrast between Duncan and Tucker is clear, but it is never mentioned explicitly. This film chose to show the supposedly Nice Guy honestly without making him into a complete caricature. Duncan is a guy that we might know. If we’re honest, he is a guy we probably know. On the other side of the coin, it gives us Tucker, who is flawed but an actual good guy. He is relatable because he is not portrayed as this misunderstood, brooding guy. He is thoughtful and somewhat goofy and full of regret. He knows who he is and who he wants to be, and he is actively working to be that person, even if it doesn’t always work out the way he wants it to.

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