Love, fidelity and fandom are explored in the pensive charmer ‘Juliet, Naked’
Rose Byrne and Chris O’Dowd in “Juliet, Naked”
Revolving around a has-been folk music icon from the 1990s, “Juliet, Naked” plays like an indie film from the same decade—the kind that would charm the flannel off coffee-drinking cinephiles at the Sundance Film Festival and beyond, akin to something Cameron Crowe might’ve made a generation ago.
Such comparisons might normally suggest something tired or anachronistic, but for “Juliet, Naked,” they’re sincere sentiments—especially when it comes to Ethan Hawke, an actor who’s anchored many classic, low budget Gen-X portraits.
And while he’s never gone away since then, Hawke’s really having a moment in 2018. Fresh off the Oscar-buzz for “First Reformed”—a challenging character study rooted in contemporary existential fears—Hawke returns to the kind of role that fits him like a glove, playing a carefree philosopher who ponders the complexities and mysteries of life but with a glint of joy rather than angst, even as he wrestles with midlife regrets.
Based on the 2009 novel by Nick Hornby (“High Fidelity,” “About a Boy”), “Juliet, Naked” is an ensemble charmer that explores a range of themes and ideas, all woven together organically: long-term relationships, settling, (in)fidelity, and overzealous fandom.
That last one, actually, is a driving undercurrent in “Juliet, Naked,” but it’s explored thoughtfully (as is everything here) with effacing humor, and not simply as some condescending critique.
Annie (Rose Byrne) is the long-suffering girlfriend of Duncan (Chris O’Dowd). They’re a London couple who have been living together for awhile under an agreement—reluctantly for her—that they won’t have children. It’s ironic, given that Duncan is an overgrown adolescent in one key respect: He’s the world’s biggest fan—obsessively so—of Tucker Crowe (Hawke), an American singer-songwriter who’s been a recluse for more than 20 years following his final album “Juliet,” a masterpiece inspired by heartbreak.
As tensions rise between Annie and Duncan, a surprising chain of events leads to Annie and Tucker striking up a transatlantic e-mail correspondence that, over its course, becomes a genuine connection.
Byrne carries her life’s discontents with convincing melancholy. O’Dowd gives emotional cred to a music nerd who would otherwise be easy to mock, and Hawke—even as a penitent deadbeat—shines in full Linklater mode (ala “Boyhood” and the “Before” trilogy).
Inevitably, Annie and Tucker meet, and it complicates the dynamic in rewarding ways. Each gets to see the other at their worst, yet witnessing brutal truths only causes their empathy and understanding of one another to grow. What evolves between them, and how, is as endearing and soulful as any film of its kind since “You’ve Got Mail.”
Duncan meeting his idol is also inevitable, and the script—co-written by Oscar-winner Jim Taylor (“The Descendants”)—beautifully humanizes the duality of fandom. Yes, it’s completely ridiculous, even misguided, but it’s also 100 percent sincere and heartfelt because the artist’s work struck a chord for the fan in a profound, defining way.
That’s ultimately the point behind all of these swirling emotions, relationships, and ideas: Being “naked” is nothing to be cynical about.