The comma separating the two words of Juliet, Naked is flush with sensual possibility, but it’s the first joke in this affable, niche-y romantic comedy. The title is more audiophilic than erotic: What’s being stripped down isn’t Juliet the person but Juliet the fictional album by a fictional singer-songwriter named Tucker Crowe. Kind of like the Beatles’ Phil Spector-less Let it Be … Naked.
Before we meet Crowe, we’re introduced to one of his most ardent admirers, Duncan Thomson (Chris O’Dowd), who runs a fan site explicating Crowe’s mythos. Apparently, as he explains on his website’s introductory video — a nice way for director Jesse Peretz to establish a hasty backstory — Tucker was a cultish figure in the genre we used to call college rock, but his life and legacy unraveled not long after the release of Juliet, his masterly breakup album. Between two sets in a Minnesota nightclub in the 1980s, and after an extended sojourn in the men’s room, Tucker left the building, never to strum another note.
People like Duncan, and his small but dedicated battalion of message boarders, have been trying to solve the mystery ever since. Speculative theories abound: Tucker moved to New Zealand. He’s sitting on 200 hours’ worth of home recordings. He’s living in a sheep farm in Pennsylvania.
It’s all too much for Annie Platt (Rose Byrne), Duncan’s partner, unfulfilled in life and work. They live together in a tiny, picturesque but static town in England, where Annie runs a provincial history museum she adopted, begrudgingly, from her late father. They’ve been together 15 years, but their relationship is spinning its wheels. She’s begun to regret their mutual decision not to bear children, and besides, she can’t compete with the spectral Tucker Crowe for her partner’s affection: Though Duncan earns a living teaching cinema at a local university, his true vocation is Tuckerology, which he practices nightly from a basement overflowing with Tucker’s music and ephemera.
It should not come as a surprise that Juliet, Naked is based on a novel by Nick Hornby, whose High Fidelity is the ultimate pop meditation on the feedback loop between music and misery — while still managing to be an effortless beach read. He treads similar ground in 2009’s Juliet, Naked, and this adaptation, scripted by four writers and produced by Judd Apatow, captures its spirit of music geekdom and relationship malaise well before we finally meet Tucker Crowe.
Played by Ethan Hawke — who continues his winning run following his magisterial work in the year’s best film, First Reformed — Tucker is nobody’s idea of a saint. A deadbeat dad with children from three (or is it four?) mothers, he lives in the cavernous garage of his unnecessarily generous ex-wife, raising a young son, finally hoping he gets this one right.
We meet Tucker through an irony that is, frankly, too precious to fully accept: He strikes an email correspondence with Annie, of all people, whose erudite dismissal of his newly unearthed demo CD (Juliet, Naked) in the comments section of Duncan’s website earns Tucker’s brutally honest approval. Annie responds, surprising herself, and the two begin airing regrets, grievances, therapeutic confessionals. This convenient digital courtship begins just as Annie and Duncan’s wilting tenure is reaching its end.
First off, it’s preposterous to believe that Tucker, who concedes he hasn’t touched a guitar in years and has all but disowned his prior career, would remain curious enough to read someone’s fan site all the way through to Annie’s 158th comment on Duncan’s review of Juliet, Naked. This is the most obvious dramaturgical flaw in a schematic film that owes too much to the formulae of rom-coms, and that closely guards revelations that astute viewers have already pieced together.
The film is redeemed by its copious humanism, its deft wit, its warts-and-all characterizations. Annie’s initial face-to-face meeting with Tucker is disrupted by a turn of events that would, in another filmmaker’s hands, appear contrived, but it’s wholly acceptable, and uproarious, in Peretz’s handling. Hawke, his hair a salt-and-pepper mop, and donning John Lennon glasses that couch his quiet desperation, masters a balance of good humor and broken-downedness. And Byrne delivers another subtle, slyly invisible performance, where every tonal decision is just perfect. Moreover, nobody in Juliet, Naked looks like a movie star, which renders their romantic travails all the more relatable.
Sure, the film’s issues constitute the First World problems of upwardly mobile white people. And yes, the film has the faint whiff of a writer-director as unfashionable as Woody Allen, were he to ever culturally evolve beyond jazz and Bergman. You can easily imagine conservative critic Armond White cracking his knuckles before writing another one of his floridly impenetrable pans. Let the haters hate; the rest of us will enjoy the most charming romantic comedy of 2018.
JULIET, NAKED. Cast: Rose Byrne, Ethan Hawke, Chris O’Dowd; Director: Jesse Peretz; Distributor: Roadside Attractions; Rating: R; Opens: Aug. 31 in most area theaters