Juliet, Naked has no one named Juliet who’s naked. No one in the movie is actually naked. It’s the title of an album within the film — a stripped-down version of another album, Juliet, by a fictional ’90s American folk rocker named Tucker Crowe. The inspiration must have been Let It Be … Naked, about which some people have reservations, however queasy they are about Phil Spector’s original mix. As the movie begins, a tape of Juliet, Naked finds its way into the hands of Crowe’s No. 1 fanboy, Duncan (Chris O’Dowd), a pretentious but not unintelligent film professor in an English seaside town. Crowe dropped out of sight decades earlier, after Juliet — some people think he’s dead — and Duncan is over the moon about this unheralded discovery. His girlfriend, Annie (Rose Byrne), a cultural anthropologist who has inexplicably accepted the runner-up role in Duncan’s affections, thinks the album is a load of wank and says so on Duncan’s fan site. She quickly hears from someone who agrees with her: Tucker Crowe.
It’s an irresistible premise: an increasingly intimate intercontinental relationship between a superfan’s idol and his own girlfriend. It’s a Platonic cuckolding. Juliet, Naked 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. Duncan, his dark alter ego, is insufferable bordering on pitiful. When an acquaintance looks at a photo of the young Crowe and pronounces him “gorgeous,” Duncan says, “Thank you,” beaming. Of Crowe’s critics, including Annie, he says, “Everyone’s entitled to their opinion, however un-nuanced” — a line I should use more often when people disagree with me. He does not know as yet that Crowe’s opinion is similarly un-nuanced.
The 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 someone like Rose Byrne, and meet her cute. Byrne, for her part, is so winning I was willing to forgive even the odd spasm of Meg Ryan-ish mugging. My chief complaint is how someone so smart, funny, beautiful, and headstrong could spend 15 years with a creep like Duncan — a representative of arrested fan culture in the internet age. (O’Dowd’s performance is obnoxious but not un-nuanced.)
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. It’s a nice combination of farce and psychodrama.
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. When the movie premiered at Sundance in January, the audience was buzzing, not because it moved the boundary posts but because it was everything a mainstream rom-com should be but no longer is — literate, unpredictable, full of bustling tangents. Think of it. You now need to go to Sundance to see what audiences used to get from studios in the pre-“franchise” days.