A poignant look at people’s struggles to overcome their perceived failures
Author Nick Hornby has made a nice living writing about male characters that seem to muddle through life with either a misguided purpose or little purpose at all. High Fidelity, About a Boy—and even Hornby’s memoir Fever Pitch—move along those thematic lines. All of those books became the basis of movies (Fever Pitch twice, in fact—one British and one American adaptation) where the protagonists fail to live up to others’ expectations of them.
Juliet, Naked is Hornby’s latest story to hit the big screen. While it follows similar patterns of the other Hornby-based movies, Juliet differs in that the characters struggle to live up to the expectations they have for themselves. And this time, there is a strong female protagonist who galvanizes the story and ultimately makes the movie a success.
The movie follows the stale long-term relationship between Annie (Rose Byrne) and Duncan (Chris O’Dowd), who live in a coastal English town where homegrown Annie curates the local museum and Duncan teaches at a college in town. Part of the reason for their waning romance is Duncan’s obsession with (fictitious) American musician Tucker Crowe, who wrote a seminal alternative rock album in the 1990s and then vanished. He never records again, and his cult legend grows.
Duncan is the leader of a Tucker Crowe online forum, where fans discuss rumors. Is Crowe alive or dead? Did he marry a Swedish princess? Why did he disappear halfway through his final live show? And, of course, they discuss the greatest album of all time, Crowe’s Juliet.
Annie seems wary of Duncan’s obsession but plays along. One day, she accidentally opens a package meant for Duncan that contains Juliet, Naked, an acoustic demo of the famed album. She listens to it and tries to brace for Duncan’s negative reaction to the album. Duncan, upset that Annie listened to it first, considers the stripped-down version a masterpiece, while Annie feels that it’s half-baked.
Tensions continue when, much to Duncan’s chagrin, Annie writes a negative review on the Tucker Crowe forum. While Duncan and his friends pan her review, she receives a message from an outdated AOL.com email address saying that Annie’s review was spot-on accurate. After a few more exchanges, Annie realizes that her new pen pal is actually the real Tucker Crowe (Ethan Hawke), who lives in the garage behind his ex-wife’s house, where he helps to take care of their son while also wallowing in self-pity and living off his past successes.
When Duncan reveals an affair he’s had, Annie seizes the opportunity to break free and start anew. Her long-distance correspondence continues until Crowe reveals that he is coming to London for the birth of his grandson and wants to meet Annie. The ensuing results include an awkwardly hilarious first meeting with Annie that includes Crowe in the hospital with four of his children and three ex-wives. Crowe eventually runs into Duncan, who meets his idol with mixed results for both of them. Meanwhile, Annie calmly navigates new and old while bonding with Crowe and his son Jackson.
This all adds up to a funny and poignant look at people and their struggles to overcome their own perceived failures. Crowe wants to disown his past career but struggles to reach his own expectations of being a good father and partner. Annie chides herself for not having children and not leaving the town where she has spent almost her entire life.
This time, there is a strong female protagonist who galvanizes the story and ultimately makes the movie a success.
O’Dowd succeeds as the intellectually smart yet socially clueless Duncan, and Hawke wears the washed-up rocker routine well, but the real star is Byrne. Annie is smart, grounded, and self-assured, despite her perceived shortcomings. She treats every new turn as an opportunity.
Juliet, Naked probably won’t convert people who dislike Hornby, but ultimately it’s successful, cinematic storytelling. While formulaic most of the way through, Juliet, Naked stands out because of its witty dialogue and its honesty. The characters aren’t always likeable, but just like earlier Hornby characters, that just makes them real.
3 out of 4 stars. Rated R for language. Mom and Dad: You won’t be offended or dislike it, but it ultimately isn’t your cup of tea.