There are so many little winks to Gen Xers and later day Millenials in the easy romcom Juliet, Naked that it mostly skates by any flaws by its charm and knowing connection to the audience. Take the largest gift to an audience between the ages of 50-30 in getting to see a version of Reality Bites‘ Troy Dyer all grown up in the form of Ethan Hawke playing Tucker Crowe, a 90s one album wonder singer songwriter dreamboat. When Juliet, Naked even references photos and band posters of a young Tucker, it’s easy to see the moody 90s pinup that Hawke was in his younger years. The audiences’ personal connection and fandom to a young Hawke compensate for how much of Duncan’s past we truly get let in on.
Tucker Crowe released an album titled Juliet and it was a cherished hit, especially among aforementioned Gen-X and older Millenial men. The album seems akin to Pinkerton, or In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. It’s the kind of album that a subset of music fans dissect over and over and seem to keep it fresh and alive with their obsessiveness. This is where the film Juliet, Naked (based on the novel by Nick Hornby) begins: With Crowe devotee Duncan (Chris O’Dowd), a British professor in his late 30s who runs a Tucker Crowe online fan forum. The audience learns most about Duncan through his cultural passions: He teaches The Wire with a studied intensity and there’s a copy of Infinite Jest on his bookshelf in his online videos. Audiences “get” Duncan because it’s assumed they probably know a Duncan. Maybe, like the film’s protagonist, Duncan’s long suffering girlfriend Annie (Rose Byrne), they’ve even dated a Duncan.
Annie longs for something bigger than her life in a seaside town in England. She studied in London, loving big city life, but was brought back to her hometown when her father got sick. After he died, she stayed in his house and took on his job as the curator of the town museum. She met Duncan and was taken in by his passion for music and movies, but after 15 years his interests dominate their relationship. Mainly, his interest in Tucker Crowe and his lack of create output after his seminal album and what he’s been doing the past 20 plus years. When Annie bashes a demo cut Crowe’s album on Duncan’s website, Duncan is hurt, but Crowe himself reaches out to Annie via email in agreement with her critique. Tucker and Annie then begin a sweet, vulnerable email exchange that quickly has an intimacy to it as they reveal and connect over their wasted adult years so far.
Rose Byrne is easy to fall in love with. As Annie, she’s winsome and charming. She’s a winning actress who’s not given a ton to do in this film emotionally, even as the main character. This film rests on Ethan Hawke’s shoulders and even as a bedraggled aging rocker, Hawke still oozes insouciant sex appeal. He is charming; he and Byrne have a believable, sweet chemistry. Chris O’Dowd is perfectly solipsistic and annoying, but he as an actor is just so dopey lovable that without so much explanation (in the script or direction) one can understand why Annie stayed in dull relationship with him for so long.
Tucker’s past, Annie’s true desires, and Duncan’s appeal aren’t revealed much in the script and the star power of the film’s actors are demanded to fill in the blanks. Luckily, the cast’s talent and pitch perfect timing help to compensate for any plot holes. The script itself (written by Evgenia Peretz, Jim Taylor, and Tamara Jenkins), while it may have left room for the actors to do some heavy lifting, still hits so many funny high notes at the dialogue level. Director Jesse Peretz (known mostly for his excellent work on Girls and Glow) understands how to give room to the actors to work their comedy and can also milk small glances for maximum emotion.
Juliet, Naked is an easy-listening sort of romcom. It’s not necessarily challenging and leans on the audiences’ love of the actors a lot, but if audiences are up for that task it’s a really sweet, satisfying watch.