★ ★ ★ ★
“Juliet, Naked,” based on a Nick Hornby novel, is a rom com for adults. Ethan Hawke and Rose Byrne play folks who have lived untidy lives and yet find one more chance at happiness.
Byrne plays Annie, an English woman who dreamed of living a glamorous life in London but settled for taking her father’s old job at a museum in the sleepy coastal town of Sandcliff. She lives with Duncan (Chris O’Dowd), a pop culture obsessed college professor who has built a shrine to 90s emo rocker Tucker Crowe (Ethan Hawke) in the basement. Crowe is an enigma, a Jeff Buckley type who only released one album. He is now the stuff of legend and speculation on a fan site run by Duncan.
When a package arrives one day containing a rare demo Annie opens it and listens to it before Duncan comes home. Displeased he dramatically declares, “I have to leave. It smells like betrayal in here.“ To get even Annie writes a lukewarm review of the demo’s “half-sketched” songs, posts it on Duncan’s site and waits for the reaction. What she doesn’t expect is to hear from Crowe himself. “Bingo,” he replies. “You nailed it. It couldn’t have said it better myself.” The unlikely pair forms a friendship via e-mail, sharing details from their lives. Soon they go from pen pals to real life friends when he comes to England to visit his daughter (Ayoola Smart).
The transatlantic epistolary of the film’s first half gives way to a charming series of scenes that sees the relationship between Annie and Tucker blossom. Director Jesse Peretz avoids most of the clichés that push rom coms into Katherine Heigl territory. Instead he conjures up a situation with lots of moving parts.
Tucker has lots of kids by different mothers, and in one great scene almost all of them arrive to visit him at the same time, with their mothers in tow. Annie is looking back at her life, wondering what might have been different if she had made different choices. “At least you have a past to live up to,” she writes to Tucker, “creative remnants from your life.” On top of that is Duncan, a monomaniac whose fandom approaches toxic levels.
All three are compelling characters brought to life by Hawke, Byrne and O’Dowd. Hawke is a leading man who is also a character actor. He brings a grungy charm to Tucker, a man who has made mistakes and owns up to them. Byrne portrays Annie’s frustration in her life but never allows her to become maudlin. She’s hopeful and you’ll want the best for her as well. O’Dowd’s fixation with Crowe, though over-the-top, is earnest.
“Juliet, Naked” has a great deal of warmth and terrific, charismatic performances. The thing that makes it great is what it doesn’t have. It’s a rom com that doesn’t pander to obvious choices—there’s no airport run or contrived fight that keeps the characters apart—and instead relies on the grown up pleasures the genre can provide.