Film Review: Juliet, Naked

Rose Byrne and Ethan Hawke make an intriguing and appealing match in this tale of the budding relationship between an unfulfilled museum curator and a past-his-prime musician.
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Juliet, Naked mashes up familiar Nick Hornby tropes (Immature, pedantic males? Check. Obsession with indie-pop music? Check.) and a Nora Ephron-esque romance with epistolary roots for one of the more delightful comedies of the year. Adapted in various drafts by Jim Taylor, Tamara Jenkins and Evgenia Peretz from Hornby’s 2009 novel of the same name, it’s also an ideal showcase for the talents of its three stars, Rose Byrne, Ethan Hawke and Chris O’Dowd.

O’Dowd kicks off the story as Duncan, a film and TV-studies professor who oversees a website devoted to Tucker Crowe, an American singer-songwriter who disappeared years ago at the height of his success. Duncan is in a 15-year relationship with Annie (Byrne), the curator of a small museum devoted to the history of Sandcliff, the quaint little British coastal town where she grew up. Long ago the couple agreed not to have children, but Annie is having serious middle-age regrets about that choice—and not finding the fulfillment she needs from her Crowe-fixated boyfriend.

One day, a package arrives containing the raw demo of Crowe’s classic LP Juliet (hence, “Juliet, Naked”). Duncan is peeved that Annie has opened it and listened to the demo first; he’s even more put out when she doesn’t agree it’s a masterpiece and then out of spite posts a negative review on his website. That review spurs the elusive Crowe to reach out to Annie online and concur with her judgment—it’s the beginning of a beautiful, and very personal, correspondence.

Through those back-and-forth e-mails, we learn that Crowe is living off his royalties in his ex-girlfriend’s garage and being an attentive father to his young son, Jackson (an effort to make up for his neglect of his four other children by different mothers). Then, Crowe and Annie (who’s broken up with Duncan) get the chance to meet face-to-face when he travels to London to visit his pregnant daughter Lizzie (Ayoola Smart).

Witty and engaging from the get-go, director Jesse Peretz's comedy hits a new high once Annie aligns with the star. On his way to meet Annie, Crowe suffers a minor heart attack, and she finds herself in the middle of a riotous hospital reunion of his ex-spouses and alienated children. And, of course, Duncan and Crowe are destined to cross paths, and it’s painfully funny when he fails to recognize that the shaggy, graying dude hanging out with his ex is his rock idol.

O’Dowd nails his assignment as the movie’s chief buffoon, but he also brings a degree of pathos to this self-important pop-culture specialist who’s blind to the needs of the wistful Annie. Even more poignant is the growing relationship of Crowe and Annie. Like many a successful musician, Crowe has made a hash of his personal life, putting himself first and profoundly disappointing his lovers and children. But we meet Crowe at a time when he’s finally facing up to his mistakes and trying to be a good dad to his youngest child. Annie, too, is eager to make a change, and finds in Crowe an unlikely sounding board for her own frustrations. Their mutual struggle feels authentic, and the movie realistically leaves their fate open-ended. But we root for things to work out thanks to the chemistry between Hawke and Byrne and the huge empathy they generate as these imperfect, striving characters.

Endearing and funny but with a melancholy edge, Juliet, Naked is more than just a rom-com—it’s a movie for and about adults, in all their messy complexity.