Romantic comedies – good romantic comedies – used to be such a fixture in the Hollywood firmament that when a pretty good one comes along now, it’s likely to be overpraised. “Juliet, Naked,” directed by Jesse Peretz and adapted from the 2009 Nick Hornby novel, will never be mistaken for a classic, but it’s rather sweet and unprepossessing. Unusual for a rom-com these days, it actually manages to be both romantic and comedic.
Annie (Rose Byrne) lives with Duncan (Chris O’Dowd), her arts professor boyfriend of 10 years, in an English coastal town, where she works at a museum where her father also worked. Dutiful to a fault, she tolerates Duncan’s fixation on an obscure ’90s rocker, Tucker Crowe, who had one smash album, “Juliet,” and then disappeared from the scene. Duncan manages a fan blog that soaks up much of his at-home time; his workspace is practically a shrine to Tucker.
The funny thing about Duncan’s obsession is that, in almost every other way, he’s a schlubby layabout. He’s a genial obsessive. He recognizes he has a good thing going with Annie, if only because she doesn’t really challenge him. (She wants kids, he doesn’t, so no kids.) But Annie finds her mettle when a package containing an acoustic demo for the “Juliet” album mysteriously finds its way to Duncan in the mail and she opens it first and plays it without telling him. For Duncan, this preemption of male privilege is galling, but the best is yet to come: She thinks the demo is mediocre and says so on his fan blog. This sacrilege has the unintended effect of drawing out the actual Tucker Crowe, who agrees with her. An email “courtship” ensues.
If all this sounds a bit twee and Nora Ephron-ish, you would not be wrong, but Peretz and the screenwriters – Evgenia Peretz, Jim Taylor, and Tamara Jenkins – keep things refreshingly funky. And when Tucker, played by Ethan Hawke, enters the picture, lured to London on a rather contrived pretext, the dual elements in this rom-com cohere.
Hawke is perfect casting because, as an actor, he already carries the superannuated Generation X vibes that define Tucker. Showing up looking rather shaggy and lumpy, he is the quintessential rocker gone to seed, but there is no bitterness in him. It’s clear he didn’t covet fame, and he doesn’t seem to be hampered by any artistic regrets, either. It’s not obvious from the music of his that we hear if we are supposed to regard him as a neglected genius or just a semi-
talented has-been, but it almost doesn’t matter. “Juliet, Naked” isn’t about Tucker’s second chance as an artist; it’s about his second chance at a life.
Tucker – who arrives in London with his doting young son Jackson (Azhy Robertson) in tow, his fifth child by four different women – has been living in the garage behind an ex-wife’s house in New York and living off royalties. By the time he and Annie meet up, Duncan has already moved out, courtesy of an affair with a fellow faculty member, so the coast is clear for a tentative connection. Annie clearly outgrew her relationship with Duncan. The question for her now is whether she can grow into a new one.
Byrne is such a quicksilver presence that it is not always believable that Annie would often be so lacking in self-esteem. But her somewhat generic British reserve plays well opposite Tucker’s shambling Americanness. They fulfill one of the central tenets of the rom-com genre: Opposites attract. But the attraction is tentative and slow-growing, and this saves the movie from slickness. We seem to discover them as they are discovering each other.
One of the bright sidelights to “Juliet, Naked” is the bemused way it deals with the crazy-making ramifications of hero worship. The film is asking what you would do if you actually met your idol. When Duncan first comes across Tucker, he doesn’t even recognize him as who he is. And when he does later, the confab does not go well. What Duncan doesn’t get is that rockers are much more (and also much less) than the sum of their recordings. It’s part of Duncan’s man-boy immaturity that he can’t comprehend Tucker for who he really is. But Annie does, and this is her saving grace. It turns out to be Tucker’s, too. Grade: B+ (Rated R for language.)