The Pitch: Based on Nick Hornby’s 2009 novel of the same name, this romanic dramedy follows a young English archivist named Annie (Rose Byrne), who’s falling out of love with her professorial boyfriend Duncan (Chris O’Dowd). The problem is that Duncan is also a man-child who can’t get his head out of the ass of a reclusive singer-songwriter named Tucker Crowe (Ethan Hawke). He spends his nights chatting to obsessed fans. He pines over Crowe’s whereabouts. He hijacks conversations to talk about the guy for hours on end. Life receives an unexpected jolt for Annie, however, when she’s serendipitously contacted by Crowe, and the two strike up a seemingly platonic relationship. Of course, this being a romantic dramedy, it’s anything but that.
All Points Westerberg: If both High Fidelity and Songbook didn’t clue you in, Hornby is something of a music scholar. So while most fictional narratives of fictitious rock stars tend to crudely embellish the mythology, leaning hard on maudlin stereotypes, Hornby is too smart for that. Instead, Crowe reads like a human being on paper, a fuck-up who just so happens to have a penchant for poetry, and he’s molded in the guise of Paul Westerberg, whose similar reclusive lifestyle is inarguably an influence on Hornby’s romantic lead. This is one of the elements that translates well to screen as Hawke eats up the role, his sex appeal buried under layers of wrinkly dad threads and disheveled salt and pepper hair. Watching him is a delight as always.
Page to Screen: The problem is that, much like the book, the focus is all over the place. Despite a glutton’s worth of screenwriters — Tamara Jenkins, Jim Taylor, Phil Alden Robinson, and Evgenia Peretz — the film never finds steady footing. We’re with Rose, we’re with Tucker, we’re with Duncan, but never long enough to grasp anything. The film’s so momentous, skipping from beat to beat, as if it’s shuffling through a Spotify playlist. Nothing breathes. Nothing feels organic. All of which is disappointing given the talent on screen and the source material. Sure, it’s not one of Hornby’s strongest works, but there’s a lot to glean, especially with regards to relationships, none of which makes it to the film. It’s Dramedy 101 at its thinnest.
The Verdict: Juliet, Naked could have been great. Hawke and Byrne do have a chemistry, but they’re always on a separate bill, to crib from the musical theme. Even worse is the ensemble of supporting characters, which tends to be the strongest facet of any Hornby adaptation. For nearly two hours, Lily Brazier is mostly relegated to being a hungry lesbian sister, seemingly cut right out of a David Wain parody, and the joke’s not only old after 10 minutes but rather cloying. There’s also zero style. Director Jesse Peretz never finds an aesthetic worth relishing, keeping things cut and dry, save for the occasional jump to Duncan’s web videos, all of which scream and beg for you to laugh. No, to quote the great bard Westerberg, anywhere’s better than here.
Where’s It Playing? Juliet, Naked opens this weekend in select theaters across Los Angeles and New York City.