Sundance Review: JULIET, NAKED Is Far Sweeter Than Its Title Indicates

A witty and terribly charming rom-com based on Nick Hornby's novel.

Juliet, Naked opens with a breathlessly narrated video primer of the fictional 1990s indie-rocker Tucker Crowe (he’d be right at home on a bill with Jeff Buckley). It’s the first thing you see when you visit “Can You Hear Me”, the world’s foremost Tucker Crowe fan site, and it briskly recounts the modest peaks and valleys of the singer-songwriter’s career. Though Crowe is considered a genius by his cultish fan base, he never broke through to the mainstream. The musician peaked with his LP Juliet, an anguished masterpiece that, to the extreme dismay of his fans, only ranked forty-fourth on Rolling Stone’s list of Top Heartbreak Albums. Soon after, he bolted a show a Minneapolis, and was never heard from again, leaving his fans to wildly speculate about the motives for his disappearance and his current whereabouts. Duncan (Chris O’Dowd), the pedantic British academic who created this video and the website, has theories. Tons of them. He is, thankfully, not the protagonist of Juliet, Naked.

As soon as Duncan’s video is over, Duncan’s girlfriend Annie (Rose Byrne) mercifully picks up the voiceover reins. She’s the sweet-natured curator of their small town’s local museum (a post she inherited from her now-deceased father), and she’s reached that age where you start to feel stuck. Duncan’s not a bad guy, but he’s not particularly keen on marriage and he doesn’t want kids. To an extent, Tucker Crowe is the one true love of his life, and he has little interest in sharing him with Annie, who can’t possibly understand the musician as profoundly as Duncan does.

Alas, he couldn’t be more wrong, as Annie learns when she posts a negative review of a newly leaked demo recording of Juliet (hence the film’s title) on Duncan’s website to get back at him for being a jerk. The following day, she receives an email from Tucker Crowe (Ethan Hawke). He agrees. The demo is dreary and nothing to get worked up over. He finds her candor refreshing. And if it’s hard to believe that the reclusive artist would be reading a website devoted to the work he abandoned over twenty years ago, well, it’s a pleasant distraction from the humiliating reality of living in his ex-wife’s garage.

It’s at this point that Juliet, Naked turns into an unexpected rom-com reconfiguration of the 1983 Eddie and the Cruisers (Tucker lives, and he just wants someone to love). Who knew that was a brilliant idea? Nick Hornby, for starters, as the film is based on his novel, which, while we’re comparing shit, has been called High Fidelity told from the girlfriend’s perspective. That’s a great idea, too, and it’s been beautifully adapted by a murderer’s row of screenwriters that includes Tamara Jenkins, Jim Taylor, Phil Alden Robinson and Evgenia Peretz. It’s a fool’s errand trying to determine which writer contributed what to the script, but it seems likely that Peretz brought it home given that the film is directed by her brother, Jesse (best known for Our Idiot Brother and many fine episodes of Girls). All that matters is that this is a witty and terribly charming rom-com that deserves to be mentioned in the same swoony breath as Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill and, more recently, The Big Sick. It’s that lovely.

It’s also the type of film that would’ve been developed by a major studio up until a decade ago, which is just a sign of the film industry’s evolving times. I don’t know if this is cause for concern or celebration, but I do know that a mature, adult-targeted comedy like this shouldn’t feel like such a rarity. So when you get one that’s this good, you can’t help but rave a little.

Unsurprisingly, most of the fan theories about the reason for Crowe’s disappearance and what he’s been up to the last twenty-plus years turn out to be bunk. He hasn’t been holed up recording new material or siring children with European royalty; he’s just been trying to be a good father to the one kid, Jackson (Azhy Robertson), he hasn’t alienated yet. He’s currently attempting to reconcile with his daughter, Lizzie (Ayoola Smart), who’s pregnant with his grandson, and she’s taking advantage of his reawakened paternal urges to compel him to reconnect with someone named Rachel (not the most complicated mystery to work out, but that’s fine). Crowe, on the other hand, is all about his correspondence with Annie, and they’re simpatico in that they’re both trying to get out of dead-end situations. Duncan helps Annie get out of hers by cheating on her. Now that they’re both free agents, it’s only a matter of time before Tucker and Annie meet and fall in love.

One of the most unexpected pleasures of Juliet, Naked is that neither character is trying to step on the gas; Tucker and Annie are seeking companionship first, and, should they click in person, maybe they’ll give the romance thing a shot. Hawke and Byrne have an easy chemistry, and they’re both splendid with young Robertson, whose adorable character winds up being the catalyst in bringing them together before being, perhaps, the reason they might drift apart.

Hawke has been a tough actor to pin down throughout his career; from child stardom in Joe Dante’s Explorers to twentysomething heartthrob to scruffy leading man, his best performances (Training Day and Richard Linklater’s Before cycle) have seemed to come out of nowhere. This is a pure movie star turn, and, as the long-checked-out-trying-to-check-back-in Crowe, he’s never been more magnetic (he also gets high marks for his achingly wistful rendition of “Waterloo Sunset”). Byrne is wonderful as the kind-hearted, but melancholy Annie. I love the way she plays Annie’s broaching of sex with Tucker, hesitant yet oddly blunt. They’re terrific together.

Narratively, the film finds itself backed into a corner at the end, and I’m not sure Peretz and his cadre of A-list screenwriters have found the most acceptable cheat of a denouement. But this is a crazy minor quibble. I still walked out grinning, looking forward to the moment when I get to share this beautiful little movie with my friends.