Annie (Rose Byrne) is the unfulfilled and long-suffering girlfriend of Duncan (Chris O’Dowd), a professor who spends most of his free time running a website and shrine to Tucker Crowe (Ethan Hawke), an indie rock star who disappeared from the public eye in the 90’s and has stoked years of fan theories and discussion over his fate. Duncan’s Tucker Crowe fandom borders on obsessive, and when he receives an acoustic demo of Crowe’s album, Juliet, Annie decides to write a scathing review of the stripped-down music on Duncan’s fansite. Crowe, who has visited the fansite, sends Annie a message agreeing with her negative review, thus setting off a chain of ‘pen pal-esque’ emails where the two exchange personal, intimate details of their lives, and their acknowledgment that maybe they’ve let the best years slip through their hands.
Rose Bryne shines as Annie, a woman seemingly stuck in an unsatisfying relationship and eager for something more. She’s sensible and kind with subtle humor and strength that had me thinking on more than one occasion that was too good for either leading man. Ethan Hawke could have easily come across as arrogant and unsympathetic, given his lack of paternal desire and instinct with his many, many children, but while he understands there’s no way to hit the ‘reset button’ in life, he’s making an effort to be better, even while he continues to misstep. He and Byrne’s interactions never felt forced or unnatural, nor was there any quirky meet-cute, unless you count Tucker responding to her negative review of his music. In fact, their first face to face comes with a heart attack and a cringeworthy, uncomfortable array of Tucker’s children and exes that makes you question Annie’s decision to answer the phone the next time Tucker calls her… something he questions as well.
As for Chris O’Dowd, he carries most of the comedic weight here, both obnoxious and yet uncomfortably relatable as a man who has let his love of an artist consume him to the point of pretentiousness. I facepalmed a few times during his conversations with Annie, especially after an indiscretion that leads to the end of their relationship, and yet O’Dowd still has enough charisma and charm that I wasn’t ready to say goodbye to his character just yet. The movie painfully deals with the concept that you should never meet your heroes because they are always bound to disappoint, and while Duncan is a bit of a knob, you can’t help but sympathize and agree when he tells Tucker that “art isn’t the for the artist any more than water is for the plumber”.
Avoiding the typical tropes and (most) contrivances, Juliet, Naked is a warm, but subtle romantic comedy with an ambiguous, yet satisfying ending. The cast is fabulous, especially the supporting roles, most notably Ayoola Smart who is wonderful as Tucker’s daughter, Lizzy and Lily Brazier as Annie’s lesbian sister who actually gave me a Honey Thacker vibe from Notting Hill. Definitely one of my favorite films of 2018 and gave me a hankering to relive another brilliant Nick Hornby adaptation, High Fidelity. Perhaps sooner than later.