Brit author Nick Hornby understands how we can become incredibly obsessed with rock 'n' roll. He captured that perfectly in his 1995 novel, High Fidelity. While Juliet, Naked, a Hornby novel from 2009, doesn't succeed on the same level, it comes close. That tome forms the basis for the new romantic comedy by the same name, a rather subdued film that benefits from some terrific performances by its leads but doesn't leave a strong enough impression to become a cult classic like High Fidelity.
The movie opens area-wide on Friday.
Juliet, Naked centers on Annie (Rose Byrne) and her struggles with her boyfriend Duncan (Chris O'Dowd), who has become increasingly obsessed with mercurial singer-songwriter Tucker Crowe (Ethan Hawke), who's gone into hiding and hasn't released an album in years. When Juliet, Naked, a demo of some previously unreleased tunes mysteriously shows up in the mail one day, Annie can't resist the temptation to give it a spin. She listens and then proceeds to write a scathing review, saying it's the attempt "to squeeze a few more quid out of a long dead career," on the fan site that Duncan runs. He immediately realizes that Annie wrote the review, and their already-on-the-rocks relationship begins to crumble.
Things become complicated when Tucker himself emails Annie to tell her that she "nailed it" in her review of the album. The two strike up a friendship, and Tucker, who lives in his ex-wife's garage and no longer tours or records, decides to come to London for the birth of his granddaughter and to meet Annie. The two quickly fall for each other, and predictably enough, Duncan finds out that Annie has hooked up with Tucker and thinks it must be some kind of cruel joke. More awkwardness ensues.
While Ryan Adams, Robyn Hitchcock, M. Ward and Conor Oberst all contribute to the soundtrack, the most memorable song is the old Kinks' number "Waterloo Station," which Hawke capably sings at one moment in the film. It should be noted that Hawke also holds his own on his rendition of Robyn Hitchcock's beautiful ballad "Sunday Never Comes."
The cast here is terrific. O'Dowd perfectly portrays Duncan as the obsessive intellectual that he is. This is a guy who lectures about the Shakespearean tragedy at the core of The Wire, and O'Dowd doesn't flinch as he makes Duncan into the kind of guy who can philosophize about pop culture. And Byrne plays Annie as the woman who winds up stuck with a man-child who can never fully commit to a relationship.
Director Jesse W. Peretz certainly gets the musical obsession part of the story. The former bassist for the indie rock group the Lemonheads, he captures the way in which even the most obscure artist can inspire a cultish following. But Peretz, who has more experience in TV than in film, just doesn't elevate the story.