As an author, Nick Hornby often specializes in stories of male arrested development, several of which -- including "High Fidelity" and "About a Boy" -- have been successfully translated into film. Based on Hornby's 2009 novel, "Juliet, Naked" continues the trend, adapted into a sweet, amiable little romance about second chances and new beginnings.
It continues Hornby's interest in men's relationship to their particular obsessions, and how it affects (and often hinders) their connection with the opposite sex. But this story finds a new angle, considering the unique challenges of being a woman in a relationship with a man in a Nick Hornby novel.
National treasure Rose Byrne plays Annie, the long-suffering girlfriend of Duncan (Chris O'Dowd). She long ago started to question the decisions she's made in life, from her job running the local history museum -- a duty she took over from her father after he became too ill to do it himself -- to the relationship she's been in for the last 15 years.
Duncan works as media-studies professor at the university, a profession that's allowed him to dwell in his insular world of pop culture obsessions. But his life is dominated by one obsession in particular: his hero, little-known '90s singer-songwriter Tucker Crowe (Ethan Hawke), considered by Duncan to be "one of the most seminal, yet unsung heroes of alternative rock."
Then Duncan receives a previously unheard recording of his most beloved Tucker album, "Juliet" -- a bootleg acoustic demo dubbed "Juliet, Naked" -- and he and Annie have difference of opinion on the relative merits of said recording ("dreary" is how Annie describes it). This leads to an argument, and inspires her to post a negative review to the forums on Duncan's Tucker Crowe fansite. But when Tucker himself decides to respond to her directly, she and the musician end up striking up an email correspondence that quickly grows into something much more personal.
As far as romantic-comedy plots go, this one's fairly high-concept, but director Jesse Peretz allows it to play out in mostly low-key ways. There's less conflict than might result in real life, but I didn't mind the film's sweet-natured generosity of spirit. The film's script (adapted by Peretz, working with his sister Evgenia and the husband-and-wife team of Jim Taylor and Tamara Jenkins) keeps its focus on its characters, preventing its plotting from becoming to tidy or contrived.
Byrne is an endlessly charming presence, even while capturing Annie's pent-up frustration with the men that surround her and their nostalgia for the way things were. Byrne is always a wonderful screen comedian, but here she finds a poignancy that matches Hawke's melancholic performance. Their chemistry makes the film work: they're an unlikely but plausible pairing, playing two people in the process of re-calibrating how they wish to move through the world.
Hawke plays Tucker with a scruffy sweetness and the sadness of a man certain that his career amounted to a lot of wasted years. Hawke sells Tucker's sincere desire to atone for the indiscretions of his youth, as he makes fumbling attempts to cultivate some sort of relationship with his five children (each with a different mother).
While Duncan remains a case study in the dangers of blind hero worship, O'Dowd's befuddled charisma keeps the character from coming across entirely as a schmuck. He does get a nice little moment in which he passionately defends his reasons for loving Tucker's art, seemingly more than even Tucker himself.
An affable romantic comedy, "Juliet, Naked" is about the regrets we accumulate as we move through life; the opportunities that we allow to pass us by and how we choose to deal with them. There's an easygoing, small-scale charm to the film that makes it one of the delightful surprises of the late-summer season.