(Editor’s Note: This review was originally published back in January after we saw this film at the Sundance Film Festival. We’re republishing today, August 17, because the film is finally being released in theaters.)
Juliet, Naked, the latest film adaptation of British novelist and screenwriter Nick Hornby, returns to Hornby’s favorite subject — immature men. Yet far from feeling stale, this familiar ground seems only to have gained added relevance in the age of near-constant infantilizing fan pandering. The superfan certainly existed in 1995, when Hornby wrote High Fidelity, but in the 2010s, he became both consumer and product.
Jesse Peretz (Our Idiot Brother) directs this adaptation of Hornby’s story, about an English woman (Rose Byrne) fed up with her boyfriend’s (Chris O’Dowd) consuming obsession with a washed-up ’90s singer/songwriter (Ethan Hawke) — who ends up coming out of hiding to become her unlikely pen pal.
It’s a return to the well for Hornby, who began his career hyper-focused on the immature lad man (About A Boy) with consuming obsessions (with soccer in Fever Pitch, with collecting records in High Fidelity). Juliet, Naked fits snugly into that oeuvre, but it’s also much more than that, and more than just a necessary critique of the Ready Player One-ing of pop culture. Just as fan culture has evolved since 1995, so too has Hornby (at least, the Hornby as filtered through this adaptation of his 2009 novel written by Peretz and writers Jim Taylor and Tamara Jenkins, with a rewrite by Phil Alden Robinson and Evgenia Peretz). Since mining his own pathos and obsessions in his early work, he’s branched out, even scripting female-driven dramas that had little to do with male immaturity — namely Brooklyn, Wild, and An Education.
You can sense how those experiences have colored Juliet, Naked. The storytelling feels more natural, the characters more fully realized. It’s more empathetic, like Brooklyn, but without losing the satirical edge of early Hornby. In fact, despite Hornby not being directly involved in the adaptation, Juliet feels like the Hornby novel adaptation that most closely preserves the tone of his writing (it helps that the setting wasn’t transposed to the US, like in High Fidelity, nor was it a period piece made contemporary, like in About A Boy).
Rose Byrne plays Annie, a museum curator who lives in the sleepy tourist trap of Seacliff with her boyfriend Duncan (O’Dowd), a college lecturer who specializes in “American cinematic expressions of the alienated male.” Duncan teaches classes about The Wire (he passes out a glossary of street terms like “po-po” and “shorty”) but more importantly, runs the fan site for acclaimed but obscure American 90s alt-rocker Tucker Crowe (Ethan Hawke). Crowe’s only album, Juliet, peaked at Number 43 on the Billboard charts and following a truncated world tour, Crowe hasn’t recorded, performed, or been seen since, only fueling his die-hard fans’ wildest speculations. Duncan uncovers the original demos for Juliet (called “Juliet, Naked”) and through a series of events I won’t spoil here, Annie ends up becoming emotional pen pals with Tucker himself.
It’s fun to speculate how much personal baggage Jesse Peretz brings to Tucker, as a one-time member of ’90s alt-rock band The Lemonheads. However much, it’s a perfect role for Ethan Hawke, a kind of older and chastened Troy from Reality Bites meets Jeff Buckley if he hadn’t died. Hawke’s Tucker is almost equal parts shitty and charming, spilling out of his ’90s cool guy t-shirts that don’t fit as well anymore and languidly brushing anachronous bangs out of his wizened but still boyish face.
It would’ve been easy to make either Duncan or Tucker the villain of this story, and Juliet doesn’t hold back its critique of either — Duncan for his silly profession and frivolous life, Tucker for his selfishness and blasé attitude. But while both come off looking like douchebags a fair amount, they’re still relatively likable. Juliet, Naked shares with Brooklyn this quality, of granting empathy and agency to even the most minor side character, from Duncan and Tucker and Annie, to Annie’s girl-crazy lesbian sister (the most — possibly only — recognizably Apatowian character in this Judd Apatow-produced comedy). It’s a pleasant watch, partly because the characters are pleasant. And the fact that they can be alternately wise, foolish, earnest, or full of shit depending on the situation just makes them feel more real. I love it when a storyteller can build a clever scene out of characters that aren’t especially clever. As when Duncan yells at Tucker before storming out, “Art doesn’t belong to the artist, any more than water belongs to the plumber!”
It takes just one facial expression (and there may be no one better at this than Chris O’Dowd) to convey that Duncan realizes he’s failed in his flustered analogy (and who comes up with great analogies when flustered anyway?). Which is also, of course, its own comment on Duncan’s talent as a cultural critic.
Above all, the characters are flawed without being irredeemable in a way that makes them feel like your own extended family. They ain’t perfect but they’re yours. Fitting for a story about having to live with the family you make, for better or worse. Tucker and Annie are both haunted by their pasts. Annie by never having taken any chances, Tucker by having indulged his every whim without a plan. This has left Annie childless and lonely and Tucker with a brood of illegitimates, some of whom hate him. Naturally, they come to influence each other.
Juliet, Naked is a happy story, but it’s just imperfect enough that it doesn’t feel like a cheat. Yes, everyone is nice and things mostly work out, but it’s a cathartic journey. It’s a coming of age for everyone involved, from Hawke’s meta-journey from ’90s heartthrobb to clever in-joke on life after ’90s hearthrob stardom, to the full flowering of the Hornby film adaptation. For every writer/storyteller/artist whose work gets stale or increasingly irrelevant or imprisoned in their own obsessions as they age, it’s nice to know that there are others like Hornby, whose work only seems to get wiser and more mature over time. Or at least, whatever sorcery Peretz and his writers used, they sure make it seem that way.