Johnny is a bitter but brilliant guy with a taste for rough sex, the quintessential angry young man drifting through a London netherworld of emotional cripples. He's got no shortage of places to go, but he's searching for a warm place to stay. When he finally finds it, he leaves.
That's a capsule summary of Mike Leigh's stinging, savagely funny new movie Naked, which won awards for best director and best actor at the 1993 Cannes Film Festival, as well as edging out Schindler's List and The Piano on an early ballot of the New York Film Critics Circle for best picture. Of course, the movie was completely overlooked by the idiots who choose the Academy Awards, but what can you expect from that collection of drooling, self-congratulatory curmudgeons? After all, Naked is adamantly anti-PC and completely devoid of the cloying affectation that Hollow-wood consistently confuses with genuine emotion.
Maybe David Thewlis's bravura performance as the desperate, misanthropic, self-destructive prophet of doom is too abrasive for American audiences. But that's part of what makes Johnny tick -- his firm conviction that nearly everyone is a victim of sentimentality over truth. He's no charmer: The film opens with a shot of him apparently raping a woman in an alley. As you learn more about Johnny's character and his penchant for attracting women who feed on his brutality (and make no mistake, he's a hair-pulling, wham, bam, thank you ma'am kind of guy), you view the opening in a different light. Maybe it wasn't a rape after all, but a consensual interlude that got too rough for one of the participants.
Naked does that; the film presents a set of assumptions and then scrambles everything just when you think you've got it figured out. Leigh encourages you to peg Johnny as a selfish, unrepentant misogynist. Then the director introduces a real son of a bitch, Jeremy, and you see Johnny in a different light. You start out hating Johnny; you begin to admire him for his restless intellect; you pity him when life unexpectedly kicks him in the teeth. Finally, you regard him with a clutch of conflicting emotions when he turns his back on love and potential redemption. You learn to empathize, but to keep your distance.
Along the way the scruffy, acid-tongued protagonist serves up nihilistic monologues that touch on everything from the Big Bang to the impending apocalypse. He can't respond to a simple question with a straight answer. Ask Johnny how he got here (meaning, into your apartment) and he'll reel off a chain of events beginning with the formation of the universe and the creation of life on Earth, proceeding through evolution, and eventually maybe answering your question and maybe not. His irreverent wit is his weapon of choice, and he metes it out like poison. No one is spared, not even himself. He's the man for women who love men too much, the smart women who make the dumb choices. He's a bully and a coward, a man on a spiritual quest who is constantly being ambushed by his own carnal appetite. And for that reason he directs a special anger toward women, whom he blames for his sexual arousal.
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The world loves a good ranter. Johnny is up there with the best of them. He's Holden Caulfield with a mean streak, Ivan Karamazov on a squalid jag through modern London. Naked peels the scraggly street philosopher down to his raw, wounded soul. And while the film strips Johnny bare, it is anything but a tease.