Juliet Naked review

If there’s one popular writer who knows his way around stories of shaky romance and an almost unhealthy obsession with music, it’s Nick Hornby. So it should come as no surprise that Juliet, Naked the latest film adaptation from the author of the source material behind High Fidelity and About A Boy – is replete with heartbreak, missed romantic opportunities, longing for connection and more in-depth analysis of music than you could ever want or need. More specifically, the music in question come from fictional ’90s musician Tucker Crowe (Ethan Hawke), who put out one of the greatest broken-heart records of all time entitled Juliet 25 years earlier, before vanishing from public life.

Of course this journey into reclusiveness only made Crowe’s legend grow and paved the way for super-fan Duncan (Chris O’Dowd) to start up a fairly authoritative fan website, providing a place for other devotees worldwide to congregate, swamp rumors, and do deep dives into all of the musician’s live and studio recordings. The person who pays the price for this level of fandom is Annie (Rose Byrne), Duncan’s long-time, long-suffering girlfriend, who indulges his commitment to the singer-songwriter on most days, but is somewhat incensed when a CD lands in their mailbox containing the stripped-down demo versions of Juliet (called Juliet, Naked), which naturally Duncan worships.

Annie’s reaction is somewhat surprising, especially since she’s never really had skin in the Tucker Crowe game. She writes a negative review of the album on Duncan’s fan site, wondering why anyone would even care about these song sketches when there are beautifully produced and engineered versions on the final album. Their differing reaction spells the beginning of the end of a relationship that has been showing signs of being well past its expiration date. It’s always a risky venture in any romantic comedy to open with a couple falling apart, but Juliet, Naked balances the disarray well, finding moment of humor in Duncan’s music-snob behavior.

It should be noted that the bits of music we hear from Tucker Crowe do seem quite period appropriate, with Hawke doing his own singing and sounding like a cross between Paul Westerberg and Jeff Tweedy. Also in the spirit of capturing the rock star aesthetic of the 1990s, the production designers use images of a much younger Hawke in mock posters for Crowe’s various gigs, plastered on every flat surface of a room Duncan essentially uses as a shrine to his idol.

Director Jesse Peretz (Our Idiot Brother, as well as a healthy dose of television helming on such series as New Girl, Nurse Jackie, and most notably Girls) has a firm grasp on his character’s tentative grasp on happiness or stable relationships. As Duncan and Annie begin to drift apart, she actually gets an email from Tucker Crowe, applauding her review of his demos, and the two strike up a flirty relationship that seems better suited to the internet. We find out that he has several children from various women he slept with over the years, most of whom seem to get along better with each other than they do with their father. The only child that actually lives with Tucker is his youngest, Jackson (Azhy Robertson). His oldest is about to have her first baby, making Tucker a grandfather for the first time, and she just happens to live in London, opening up the opportunity for Tucker to come to the UK to lend support to his daughter and perhaps go on a first date with Annie.

The 2009 novel was adapted by a host of writers, including Tamara Jenkins (whose directing effort Private Life also debuted at Sundance this year), Alexander Payne’s regular writing partner Jim Taylor (Sideways, Election, Downsizing), and Field of Dreams writer/director Phil Alden Robinson, which may seems like overkill to produce a relatively simple work. There are places where the laughs and drama don’t always strike the perfect balance, but for the most part, Peretz and his team (which also includes producer Judd Apatow) make this music-themed love story hum along with charm and messages about not being afraid to shift the direction of one’s life mid-stream.

What Juliet, Naked may lack in depth it makes up for in pure, uncut charm – especially from Byrne, who walks the tightrope between supportive, assertive partner and woman who is afraid to upset the status quo of her relationship by criticizing her boyfriend’s eternal-flame worship of an obscure rock star. Whether the film intended this or not, Annie is a poster child for breaking the routine and accepting even the least expected chance for connection. Her anticipation of actually getting to meet Tucker in London is wonderfully deflated in one of the film’s funniest moments, when he ends up in the hospital upon his arrival. After which, his entire extended, estranged family arrives in various combinations to take shots at him for pretending to come across the pond to help out with his eldest daughter’s delivery, when in fact he’s just there to meet yet another pretty lady.

Some of the must unexpectedly fascinating material in Juliet, Naked involves O’Dowd’s almost militant stance about his favorite album’s status as one of rock’s greatest sad records. There’s an extended mealtime conversation when Duncan finally comes face to face with Tucker, who is politely humble about his music, launching a diatribe about art not belonging to the artist once it’s created. Clearly a watershed moment in Duncan’s life, he concludes that he doesn’t actually care what his hero thinks of his own music.

Director Peretz allows certain expectations to settle in (including several instances where the film feels like a UK-set remake of You’ve Got Mail), but then subverts them at nearly every turn, with the exception of a neat-little-bow ending that seems unnecessary. Then there are other, more somber moments, like Hawke’s lived-in, solo rendition of The Kinks’ “Waterloo Sunset,” marking the first time Tucker has played in front of a crowd since his withdrawing from the world. Juliet, Naked is peppered with moments like that one that ground what could have been a lightweight offering into something with a bit more substance.

/Film Rating: 7 out of 10

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