Juliet, Naked, Nick Hornby’s spiritual sequel to High Fidelity, has now been adapted into a big-hearted, but somewhat flat rom-com starring Rose Byrne, Ethan Hawke and Chris O’Dowd. High Fidelity is a classic of the genre; Juliet, Naked isn’t. It is, however, charming and refreshingly honest about growing old.
When Nick Hornby’s Juliet, Naked was published in 2009, it was impossible for critics to ignore the obvious High Fidelity connection. As the New York Times noted in its review, “Nick Hornby is again having fun with — making fun of — an obsessive music fan. What’s different now, 14 years after High Fidelity, is that fans live out their obsessions on the Internet, a place where distances shrink, time collapses, and it’s very easy to get lost.”
It is similarly difficult to avoid the connection when discussing the new, largely faithful film adaptation from director Jesse Peretz (Our Idiot Brother, Girls, Glow), producer Judd Apatow, and Tamara Jenkins (The Savages), Jim Taylor (Alexander Payne’s longtime co-writer) and two other writers.
As in the novel, the “music fan” is Duncan (a reliably doofy O’Dowd), who plays a bit like a shadow version of John Cusack’s Rob Gordon from High Fidelity. While he pays the bills by teaching film and TV studies at a college in a quaint, seaside British town, Duncan’s true passion is Juliet, a dreary breakup album released by a one-and-done, reclusive American singer-songwriter named Tucker Crowe in the early 90s. Before the internet, the closest fellow fan of the album lived hundreds of miles away from Duncan in Manchester. Now, he regularly communicates with the hundreds of fellow superfans through a website he’s created in tribute to an album so underappreciated that Rolling Stone ranked it just outside the top 40 of best breakup records.
Watching this somewhat sad display of self-indulgent fandom is Annie (Byrne, who mixes her usual comic charm with a quiet desperation), Duncan’s girlfriend of nearly two decades, and Tucker Crowe (Hawke, in mid-Boyhood form) himself, who lives on a Pennsylvania farm with his 6-year-old son and notes how his fans keep getting everything wrong. When the long lost, stripped-down demos for Juliet are discovered and sent to Duncan on a CD labeled Juliet, Naked, Annie is less than impressed and writes a critical review to counter Duncan’s expectedly rhapsodic one. This event drives a wedge between them but also draws the attention of Crowe, who emails Annie to confirm he shares her cynical view of his own work. Thus begins a You’ve Got Mail-style pen pal relationship between the girlfriend and the guy her boyfriend idolizes.
So, basically, Rob Gordon’s worst nightmare.
While much of the plot has to first filter through Duncan, this isn’t actually his story. Instead, Juliet, Naked plays far more like if someone made a version of a High Fidelity from Iben Hjejle’s point of view instead of John Cusack’s. She is the one grappling with the need to move on to the next stage in her life, stuck in a dead-end job at a museum in a dead-end town with a boyfriend she’s grown to resent.
Just watch the trailer and you can easily see this is Rose Byrne’s film, not Chris O’Dowd’s:
There is certainly an orchestrated rom-com feel to the set-up, and Annie as the childless woman desperate to be a mother bonding with the aging rockstar who has too many children of his own is certainly a convenient pairing of circumstances. However, it works because there is such an emotional honesty underneath it. You really do feel Annie’s despair over having wasted 15 years of her life and fear of, but immense need for change just as you feel Tucker’s litany of regrets and still-developing plan for improvement.
So effective is Annie and Tucker’s mutual regret that Duncan’s occasional re-entries into the story feel unwelcomed. Even with O’Dowd’s reliable charm, he’s just not as interesting a character as them.
The major problem with the film, however, is its smallness. Byrne and Hawke have a palpable chemistry and are worth rooting for as a pair, but Peretz oddly underplays everything, to the point that crucial conversations and scenes which would be showcase moments in a normal rom-com practically happen off-screen here. There’s aiming for a natural feel to make things feel more real, but then there’s just completely sacrificing key story points for some misguided sake of authenticity.
Which is why it’s all the stranger that there’s a mid-movie zany comedy set piece involving Annie’s first meeting with Tucker being instantly interrupted by the surprise arrival of all his children and exes. The scene itself is an inspired bit of comedy, with Annie increasingly eyeing the exit despite Tucker’s pleas for her to stay, but it also fits a bit dropped in from a different, far broader movie. Why go that big with the comedy in that one scene and then so very small with the emotions when it counts?
THE BOTTOM LINE
Juliet, Naked is an understated, at times old-fashioned, at other times very modern, romcom about two people meeting and giving each other the kick in the butt they each need to get on with the rest of their lives. While let down by some tonal inconsistencies in the direction and writing, it makes up for it with winning turns from Rose Byrne and Ethan Hawke.
RANDOM PARTING THOUGHT
For a movie about a musician’s misunderstood masterpiece we hear surprisingly little of his actual songs, even though they went to all that effort to write them and have Ethan Hawke sing them on the soundtrack. What we do hear is mildly pleasant, but hardly memorable.
What about you? Have you seen Juliet, Naked? Are you a Nick Hornby fan? Will anything ever top High Fidelity? Or are you more of an About a Boy or An Education kind of Hornby fan? Let me know in the comments.