An Aging Rocker, A Fawning Fanboy — And Thou: 'Juliet, Naked'
Anyone with even a glancing exposure to Nick Hornby's work will not be surprised to learn that the movie adapted from Juliet, Naked, his 2009 novel, turns on pop-music fandom. What's refreshing is that the fanboy is not the main character. What's very nearly shocking is that the central figure is a woman, one of those mysterious creatures who usually exist in Hornby's books as shadowy they do in Bob Dylan ballads.
The woman is Annie, a rare worthy role for Rose Byrne, whose usual lot is to be charming in charmless movies. Annie lives a life of quiet if good-natured regret in an outmoded seaside town within commuting distance of London. One of her regrets is that she's childless and approaching the close of her fertile years. Another is her live-in boyfriend, Duncan (Chris O'Dowd). He's the music nerd.
Duncan teaches TV and film studies at a local college and is obsessed with Tucker Crowe, an American rocker who vanished from public view after his 1993 album, Juliet. The pretentious prof is a Crowologist who runs a website devoted to the singer-songwriter, and is thrilled to receive a set of demos for his final album. Rather than "unplugged," the bootleg is designated "naked."
Annie posts a skeptical review of the newly unearthed "masterwork" on Duncan's site, and receives an email that seconds her judgment. It's from Tucker himself (inevitably, Ethan Hawke), now living a rather more normal life than his cultish fans imagine. The negligent father of five children by four women, Tucker is trying to properly parent his youngest, Jackson (Azhy Robertson), while living in the upstate New York garage of his latest ex.
Annie and Tucker become regular (and secret) correspondents, to the point that she refers to their "email affair." Meanwhile, Duncan begins a non-virtual fling with a colleague, and moves out. Then Tucker arrives in London to meet his newborn grandson. (Jackson travels with him, because About a Boy was pretty cute, no?) Every lever of the mechanism seems set for romantic comedy.
That's the niche into which Juliet, Nakedhas been slotted, but it doesn't really fit. While the movie has humorous moments, it doesn't pursue laughs relentlessly. There's as much drama as anything, and Annie's backstory is nearly as grim as the tale of Tucker's lost career and parental failures. Also, the film's ending sidesteps the certainty that's a rom-com requisite.
Directed by former Lemonheads bassist Jesse Peretz, the movie makes savvy use of music without overstuffing the soundtrack. Hawke's Tucker sings tunes written for him by Robyn Hitchcock, Conor Oberst, Ryan Adams, and Nathan Larson (who also composed the score), and a Kinks classic makes a welcome (if obvious) appearance.
Juliet, Naked was reportedly scripted by at least four writers, three of whom are credited, and includes some improvised lines. The results deviate from Hornby's novel, sometimes in significant ways, but not for the worse.
The scenario is contrived, of course, and aspects of it don't withstand much scrutiny. Annie and Tucker would never have become acquainted without websites and email, yet the many myths about the musician's life could have sustained themselves only in the pre-Internet era. The film, which features several 1960s songs, has one foot in the "Paul is dead" era.
What beguiles, aside from the winning performances, are the movie's generous spirit, shifting tone, and wealth of quickly sketched yet sufficiently realized supporting characters. Juliet, Naked is a revenge fantasy: An overlooked woman steals her bad boyfriend's true love. But the movie is concerned not with winning and losing, but with getting by. That's a theme that doesn't belong to any particular genre.
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