“Juliet, Naked” is a gently winning romantic comedy, all keyed to a delightful note of indie-rock obsession. It’s exactly the sort of movie you want to see at Sundance — though by that, I don’t mean that it’s a knockout work of art like “Manchester by the Sea” or “Whiplash” or “Boyhood.” It’s a little mild, a little cozy in its affections; it didn’t leave me as excited as “The Big Sick” did last year. (Frankly, it could have used a more killer ending.) Yet it’s a winsome screwball love story that grows on you and takes you somewhere charming.
The movie was worked on by four screenwriters (including Tamara Jenkins, Jim Taylor, and Phil Alden Robinson), but it’s adapted from a Nick Hornby novel, and for a while it’s content to get tangled up in Hornby’s vintage music-geek fever. The figure at the center of all that is Tucker Crowe (Ethan Hawke), a cult rocker of the early ’90s who amassed a devoted following and then disappeared, walking out midway through a gig in a Minneapolis club called The Pit, never to return to the stage. Now, his legend looms. He’s like a Jeff Buckley who vanished instead of dying, or a Daniel Johnston minus the mental eccentricities.
One lonely fan, however, has kept the flame burning. His name is Duncan (Chris O’Dowd), and he’s a tall acerbic teacher of film and television studies who lives with his long-time girlfriend, the saddened, sweet-souled Annie (Rose Byrne), in the British coastal town of Sandcliff.
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There, Annie runs the Sandcliff Seaside Museum, and Duncan obsesses over maintaining the website that he has devoted to the genius of Tucker Crowe. Duncan, one of Hornby’s compulsive pop romantics, has turned an entire room of their house into a shrine to Tucker (magazine covers, concert posters), and he collects bootleg recordings with the fervor of a Deadhead. But that’s the whole problem with Duncan and Annie’s relationship: He’s like the Daniel Stern character in “Diner” — he doesn’t want a partner, he wants a fellow fan (of Tucker, and maybe “The Wire”).
We’ve been here with Hornby before (e.g., the impassioned record fetishists of “High Fidelity”), and for a while “Juliet, Naked” feels pat. Are we supposed to be rooting for this partnership to improve? The answer, thank God and Daniel Johnston, is no.
One day, a home-made CD arrives in the mail. It’s the original demo recording of Tucker’s album “Juliet,” which Tucker, from somewhere in obscurity, has sent along to Duncan himself. Annie listens to it and doesn’t like it (she thinks it’s listless and enervated, if not downright flaccid). And since she has nothing, at this point, but buried resentment toward her boyfriend’s obsessive fan worship, she posts a scathing review of the album on the site. Tucker, it turns out, agrees with her criticisms; he sends her an email. And they begin to share their life stories.
All very cute, right? But just when you’re thinking that “Juliet, Naked” is going to turn into the indie-hipster “You’ve Got Mail,” it shifts into a more elevated gear. Annie and Duncan break up (this isn’t a spoiler, it’s the premise), and Tucker, instead of spending the movie in the shadows, is revealed to be a supremely un-exotic middle-aged dude living in the garage behind his ex-wife’s house in upstate New York. Yes, Ethan Hawke, with a graying goatee and a pot belly, is portraying another scruffy ne’er-do-well. But who cares, since he does it so well! His brilliance as an actor is the way that he thinks out his characters and plays every moment of their present tense as the tip of the iceberg to who they really are.
Tucker, as it turns out, has a bunch of children, all with different mothers, and he has been an active parent to none of them (except his current young son, Jackson, played by Azhy Robertson). The movie isn’t about Tucker’s “comeback.” He’s done with being a musician (he couldn’t care less). His real unfinished business is the fatherhood he has spread around like candy without living up to it. One of his adult daughters lives in London, and is pregnant, and when he goes out to visit her, that’s where the movie ascends. He meets Annie, and their mutual sense of loss locks them together. Of course, it’s also inevitable that Tucker is going to run into his biggest fan…
“Juliet, Naked” is something lightly unusual: a romantic comedy about three people who all appear likable enough, but who have made quiet messes of their lives. None of them are spring chickens; that’s part of what charges the film with a certain wistful urgency.
Yet the director, Jesse Peretz, has developed an understated crack comic timing from his work on shows like “Girls.” There’s a terrific sequence set in a London hospital room, which fills up with all the mothers and children Tucker has been avoiding — it plays like a screwball intervention. There’s a lovely scene in which Tucker, at the electric keyboard, performs the Kinks’ “Waterloo Sunset.” And when Duncan finally confronts his hero, telling him exactly what his music has meant to him, and Tucker doesn’t even want to hear about it (for reasons revealed later, he can’t hear it — it’s too painful), it’s a moment that trumps the entire film version of “High Fidelity.” It’s a scene that looks at pop culture from both sides, touching the creative mystery of it.
O’Dowd, playing down his cheekiness, is better than he’s been in any movie since “Bridesmaids.” Hawke, just when you think you’ve got him pegged, keeps finding new flavors of disillusioned charisma. And Byrne, who has the trickiest role in the movie (she has to walk around wearing a pout of dissatisfaction), keeps us on her side by investing Annie with that most indelible of qualities: the innocence that lives on the other side of heartbreak. “Juliet, Naked” is a feel-good movie for the best of reasons. It leaves you completely happy you met the people in it.