Juliet, Naked is the latest likable but lackluster film attempting to “reinvent” the romantic comedy. Unfortunately, it sacrifices too many elements that made the genre appealing in the first place – a mature and swoon-worthy leading man, for instance. But more importantly, it lacks an element essential to making any rom-com tick: the romance.
We meet Annie (Rose Byrne) just as she’s coming to the realization that she deserves better in life. It’s painfully obvious she’s outgrown her relationship with Duncan (Chris O’Dowd), a middle-aged professor still priding himself on being the number one fan of former indie-rocker Tucker Crowe (Ethan Hawke). After fifteen years of coming in second to the musician – who gained legendary status after one album and a mysterious disappearance twenty years ago – Annie is fed up with being ditched by her boyfriend who would rather argue conspiracy theories on his Crowe fansite than spend an evening with her. Things take an interesting turn when a previously unreleased demo of Crowe’s album arrives, inspiring tears from Duncan and a scathing online review from the disgruntled Annie which draws the musician out of hiding and into her life.
Based on the 2009 novel by Nick Hornby, Juliet, Naked isn’t the first time the author’s fascination with rabid music fandom has been adapted for the screen. Fans of High Fidelity will recognize echoes of Rob Gordon and the boys from Championship Vinyl in Duncan’s passion for all things Crowe. In fact, his character makes a number of poor decisions comparable to Rob’s ... except Duncan isn’t clever, charming, or quick enough on his feet to bounce back from them.
Likewise, any romanticized notions surrounding the legendary Tucker Crowe are quickly shot down by the reality of his shambled existence. Ethan Hawke channels a little of Reality Bites' Troy Dyer in his role as the irresponsible rock idol, having spent the last couple of decades scraping by on royalties and living in the garage behind his ex-wife’s house. Add to that his inability to connect with the numerous children he’s fathered over the years with various women and you realize rather quickly that neither of these so-called leading men are worthy of a compassionate and loyal woman like Annie. Oddly enough, the most charming guy around is Crowe’s youngest son, Jackson, thanks to an understated and natural performance from Azhy Robertson.
While each of the leads are likable, Rose Byrne is the heart of the film. Sadly, Annie's transatlantic romance with Crowe takes place entirely via email and voiceover, never eliciting enough of a spark to pay off when they meet face-to-face. Somewhere along the way director Jesse Peretz (My Idiot Brother, Girls, Glow) abandons the rom in rom-com, leaving little room for Hawke and Byrne to connect and no reason to root for any grand gestures or declarations of love.
As for the comedy, there are some lighthearted laughs centered mostly around O’Dowd’s obsessive rants and one chaotic scene in the hospital where Crowe’s past and present hilariously collide. But most of the film's climactic moments fall flat, including Duncan’s “never meet your heroes” encounter with Tucker and the big reveal of the event that sent Crowe into hiding. Even so, the cast works hard to add some life to the story and Hawke and Byrne are always worth showing up for. If only Juliet, Naked had included a few beats of good old-fashioned romance, perhaps this rock and roll fantasy could have hit the right notes.