Music fandom among males is a specialty of author Nick Hornby (see: the vinyl nerds, on page and screen, of High Fidelity), and the British writer continues his probe into the pathology of rock obsession with Juliet, Naked. The fan in question is Duncan (Chris O’Dowd), an academic who teaches Cinema and TV Studies, i.e. he makes classroom comparisons of The Wire to Shakespeare and Dickens that seem hilarious (and spot-on). Still, the professor saves his most rapt admiration for Tucker Crowe (Ethan Hawke), an alt-rocker who achieved cult status 25 years ago by walking off stage for good after releasing one album called “Juliet.” For Duncan, the music is such a consuming passion that one room of his house in the English waterfront town of Sandcliff is devoted to all things Tucker.
Who could live with his dude? In reality, no one. But in the film — directed by Jesse Peretz (Girls, GLOW) from a worked-over script by Jim Taylor, Tamara Jenkins and Evgenia Peretz — our sad-sack hero has snagged the affections of Annie (Rose Byrne), a museum curator who puts up with this patronizing gent and fan’s notes until, well, she doesn’t. When a package arrives at the house Annie and Duncan share, it contains “Juliet, Naked,” a demo CD of the album — think Tucker unplugged. Annie disses it as “dreary”; she even says so on Duncan’s website. It also doesn’t help that her boyfriend is having it on with a fellow teacher, an attraction she believes is totally based on her rival having the “right” reaction to Tucker’s music.
Based on his 2009 novel, Juliet, Naked is brimming with Hornby’s signature wit and wide streak of melancholy. But the whole fandom-run-amuck story would feel frustratingly rote were it not for the vitality of the performances. O’Dowd proves that the right actor can play a jerk and still make him fallibly human and appealing. Byrne, a scrappy treasure in such comedies as Bridesmaids and Spy, spices up her natural charm with wicked mischief. She’s a pleasure to watch.
And sparks really do fly when the scruffy Tucker shows up in person and Hawke — looking attractively dazed and confused — underplays his way into our hearts. It turns out the musician has read Annie’s takedown of his tunes on Duncan’s website and totally agrees with her criticisms. The script contrives for the two to meet at a London hospital where the singer-songwriter, having suffered a heart attack, is visited by a series of ex-wives and neglected children who seem disappointed the bastard may survive. Peretz directs the scene as farce — and it jolts the film to life.
Nothing really tops that moment, but Byrne and Hawke create a relationship to root for even if this couple couldn’t be more wrong for each other. Juliet, Naked is annoyingly hit and miss. But when Annie and Tucker connect with the gob-smacked Duncan, the movie substitutes the hard sell for grace notes and wins us over.