One of the best movies of the year is simultaneously a traditional romantic comedy, a throwback to both early-1990s indie rock and the films inspired by it, and a cautionary tale about toxic fandom.
Based on a 2009 novel by Nick Hornby, Juliet, Naked is a more grown-up version of the film adaptations of Hornby’s earlier work, most notably High Fidelity. This film, unlike that one, shows us an obsessive music fan, and acknowledges that he’s kind of a creepy asshole.
Juliet, directed by Jesse Peretz, has a great hook and builds from there. Chris O’Dowd and Rose Byrne start the movie off as a couple, living in a coastal English town. A blowhard college professor who teaches courses about The Wire, O’Dowd’s Duncan also runs the Internet’s leading fan site for Tucker Crowe (Ethan Hawke), a mostly forgotten early-90s singer/songwriter who’s been a mysterious recluse for the past 25 years.
The title refers to a stripped-down demo version of Crowe’s classic album, which emerges years later, in the tradition of the Beatles’ Let It Be... Naked.
Duncan is a familiar type, a pop culture obsessive who’s not only insufferable to those around him, but lets his fanboy values manifest themselves in awful ways. One of the film’s strengths is that it makes its point about this without getting overly preachy.
Byrne’s long-suffering Annie, as you may have guessed, gets to know Crowe. The ex-rock star, who hasn’t picked up a guitar in years, now lives in his ex-wife’s garage in upstate New York, hoping to atone for years of alcoholism and his strained relationships with multiple estranged ex-wives and children. Annie, meanwhile, finally admits to herself that she really wants to have kids.
Juliet, Naked has a lot to say about aging, regret, parenthood, and music. It gets the details just right about both the music and album and poster art of the indie rock music of 1993. The songs sound right, with the likes of Ryan Adams and Robyn Hitchcock writing them, and Hawke doing a passable job singing along.
The film is highlighted by a wonderful performance by Hawke, who was so riveting earlier this year in First Reformed. It has him as a rock star from 1993, the year before the Hawke sang, “I’m Nothing” on stage in Reality Bites. We’ve seen Hawke aging on screen, both in Richard Linklater’s Before movies and over the course of Boyhood, but Juliet, Naked presents a reflective, self-aware, grown-up Hawke.
And judging by his work, Nick Hornby has grown up too. I can’t be the only man of my generation (college then, 40 now) who saw the High Fidelity movie back in 2000, related to John Cusack’s protagonist, and didn’t realize at the time that this overgrown manchild who spent all his days making lists of songs and girls was kind of an ass. And the less said about the Jimmy Fallon/Red Sox version of Hornby’s Fever Pitch, the better.
Hornby’s reinvented himself as a screenwriter of acclaimed, female-focused literary adaptations, such as An Education, Wild, and Brooklyn. Juliet, Naked shows that the 61-year-old Hornby has changed over time too.
Jesse Peretz (son of Martin, and brother of Eugenia, who co-wrote the script) directed the middling early-2000s drama The Chateau and the atrocious 2011 comedy Our Idiot Brother (both with Paul Rudd), and has spent most of the last few years directing prestige TV, including episodes of Girls, New Girl, and GLOW. But this is his best work by far.
As for the rest of the cast, Byrne has her best rom-com role to date, and O’Dowd nails it, even if he’s starting to get typecast as this sort of cad, such as in the outstanding recent Love After Love, and even his brief arc on Girls. Lily Brazier steals every scene she’s in as Annie’s voracious lesbian sister, a character who probably deserves her own movie.