The Sundance audience was buzzing after the premiere of Juliet, Naked, not because it moves the boundary posts but because it’s everything a mainstream rom-com should be but no longer is — literate, unpredictable, full of bustling tangents. Think of it. People have to come to Sundance to see what audiences used to get from studios in the pre-“franchise” days.
The movie is based on a Nick Hornby novel that funnels a lot of Hornby’s fanboy impulses (including his self-loathing, paranoid ones) into a single breezy vehicle. His dark alter ego is Duncan (Chris O’Dowd), a fatally pretentious but not unintelligent film professor in an English seaside town. Duncan is obsessed with an early ’90s American folk rocker named Tucker Crowe, who dropped off the map decades earlier. His shelves groan with bootleg cassettes and memorabilia, and he slavishly maintains a fan website. Early in the movie, Duncan eagerly shows a new acquaintance a photo of the young Crowe. “He’s so gorgeous,” she says. “Thank you,” he says, beaming.
The insufferable Duncan is not the protagonist, thank Hornby. That would be his girlfriend, Annie (Rose Byrne), a cultural anthropologist and curator who has inexplicably accepted the runner-up role for Duncan’s affections. She keeps her feelings about Tucker Crowe to herself until a package arrives with a never-before-heard version of what Duncan considers Crowe’s heartbreaking masterpiece, Juliet. Called Juliet, Naked, it features the same songs, only slower and without orchestrations. Duncan is in heaven. Annie thinks it’s wank and says so on Duncan’s website. “Everyone’s entitled to their opinion, however un-nuanced,” Duncan tells her. (I should use that line when people disagree with me.) But one person thinks Annie called it right and sends her a private message: Tucker Crowe.
It’s an irresistible premise: an increasingly intimate intercontinental relationship between a super-fan’s girlfriend and his idol — right under the asshole’s nose. Hell of a cuckolding for someone like Duncan. Thereafter, director Jesse Peretz jumps back and forth between England and the U.S., where Tucker (Ethan Hawke) confronts the consequences of having so many children he doesn’t know by so many women who can’t stand him. The scruffy Hawke gives Tucker the perfect combination of self-disgust and arrogance. A king who mocks his own powers and runs from the spotlight but still carries a sense of entitlement is doomed to despair — unless he happens to meet Annie and meet her cute.
Byrne is the heart of Juliet, Naked, and she’s so winning I was willing to forgive even the odd spasm of Meg Ryan–ish mugging. True, the idea that someone so smart, funny, beautiful, and headstrong would have spent 15 years with a creep like Duncan is pure male wish-fulfillment. O’Dowd doesn’t hit any false notes, though. He makes Duncan’s monomania emotionally true. And not un-nuanced. As the screen’s representative of fan culture in the internet age, he’s painful but recognizable.
Peretz keeps a lot of balls in the air, among them Crowe’s various exes and children. (Ayoola Smart is the pregnant daughter Tucker hasn’t seen in a decade, Azhy Robertson the little boy who has finally stirred Tucker’s present-tense parental feelings.) Everyone crowds in on him in a hospital room that’s like the Marx Brothers’ stateroom, if every new addition was further proof of the protagonist’s shamefully misspent youth. (I guess that’s not really Marx Brothers material, but it’s a nice combination of farce and psychodrama.) Sadness hangs over the movie and enriches it.
Hornby’s novel has an ambiguous and — to my mind — annoyingly unsatisfying ending. What Peretz has replaced it with is a little pat but much more crowd-pleasing. I think the film will do well when it’s commercially released, if there’s anyone left in the mainstream audience for rom-coms that don’t insult the intelligence.