I really must get around to reading some Nick Hornby; people keep making delightful movies out of his books—High Fidelity, About a Boy, Fever Pitch, and now Juliet, Naked.
Rose Byrne plays Annie, curator of a small museum in a seaside English town. “I may look like a nice English lady in a sensible cardigan,” she tells us in voice-over, “but these days it’s a thin veneer, and it’s starting to crack.” The most seismic crack is caused by Duncan (Chris O’Dowd), her boyfriend of 15 years, and his obsession with Tucker Crowe, a once-influential 1990s American rocker who quit the music scene in the middle of a gig and hasn’t been heard from in 20 years. Since then, Crowe has dwindled to the focus of a loyal internet cult with Duncan as its high priest; from his basement shrine to the singer, Duncan spends his time online, swapping guesses with like-minded fanboys about what Crowe is up to these days and dissecting every detail of Crowe’s “seminal” album Juliet.
When a bootleg CD of acoustic demos for the album, called Juliet, Naked, turns up, Duncan and the others post ecstatic reviews, naturally. But Annie posts her own take, calling it “a naked attempt to squeeze a few more quid out of a long-dead career.” Duncan is affronted, but Crowe isn’t; he emails Annie: “Bingo. You nailed it. I couldn’t have explained it better myself.”
Is this really Crowe? It is. Cut to Pennsylvania, where Crowe (Ethan Hawke) is living in the garage of his ex-girlfriend’s and trying to be a good father to his 6-year-old son Jackson (Azhy Robertson). Jackson is his last chance for parenthood; he has four other offspring he barely knows, by three other women. An email correspondence, bordering on flirtation, springs up between Tucker and Annie, two people whose lives, for different reasons, have not gone the way they liked.
When Duncan has an affair with a colleague, Ros (Lily Brazier), it’s all Annie needs to kick him out of the house. Meanwhile, Tucker’s daughter Lizzie (Ayoola Smart), who happens to live in London, has a baby. New-grandpa Tucker and Jackson fly to London for the occasion, and Tucker suggests that he and Annie meet. But a heart attack upon arrival lands Tucker in hospital, leading to a horrifying family reunion as his bed is surrounded by bitter exes and children who are strangers, with Annie squirming on the sidelines.
Juliet, Naked has an amiable aimlessness that may keep it from landing a solid bullseye, perhaps because of the three-handed adaptation by Evgenia Peretz, Jim Taylor and Tamara Jenkins. But director Jesse Peretz (Evgenia’s brother) smooths out the wrinkles, allowing the movie to draw a nervous, energetic charm from Byrne’s performance—she manages somehow to make Annie simultaneously humdrum and luminous—and the interplay among Byrne and her co-stars. O’Dowd especially shines, giving Duncan and his pathetic obsession a perverse dignity in the face of his idol’s scornful dismissal of it.
So what else has Hornby written? I can hardly wait.