There’s a pretty great fake-out in Jesse Peretz’s adaptation of Nick Hornby’s novel Juliet, Naked. It comes in the first few minutes of the film, as the usual regressively boyish Hornby protagonist Duncan (Chris O’Dowd) appears in a video on a website he set up for a reclusive ’90s musician named Tucker Crowe (Ethan Hawke). Duncan is a Tucker mega-fan, and his video tells the story of Tucker’s abridged history with the air of an obsessive expert, lingering on one album, Juliet. The album was inspired by one of Tucker’s love affairs and it was so painful that it caused Tucker to disappear and leave his hungry fans in a lurch — or so Duncan believes after studious research.
One would think this film would belong to Duncan, that we would then watch him fumble through a romance, searching out the perfect while never appreciating the good. But no. The film actually belongs to Duncan’s partner, Annie (Rose Byrne), and I breathed a sigh of relief when I realized that.
It’s as though I’ve had my High Fidelity fantasy delivered lo so many years later: Show me this emotional idiot’s relationship from the woman’s perspective. Through circumstance and coincidence, Tucker and Annie begin a secret internet friendship, just as Duncan begins cheating with a new movement teacher at his university. Peretz could have given each potential pairing equal time in the story, but he sticks with the most evocative of the two; Juliet, Naked has its charms, and they are named Rose Byrne and Ethan Hawke.
Byrne’s comic timing has been honed over a series of films, including The Meddler, Spy and both Neighbors movies, and she’s quickly becoming the “everywoman” of cinema. Her characters are charming but full of faults, and easy to frustrate without seeming like they have a stick up their asses. Here, she’s equally matched by Hawke’s rendition of an aging rocker who checked out of life. Sweet and eager, but dumb, Tucker can be summed up by the peculiar gait Hawke created for the character: a clumsy shuffle, like he’s moving in every direction simultaneously, unsure which is the right way. Together, they make an unlikely but butterflies-in-the-stomach match for romance.
When the two first meet in person, Tucker is splayed in a London hospital bed, having suffered a heart attack on his way to meet his new grandkid. Annie is bashful, and Byrne’s performance is such that I could see the gears turning in her character’s head: Do I want to get into a relationship with a grandfather who just cheated death? That meeting leads to a more slapstick situation, wherein nearly every ex or child Tucker has ever had filters through the hospital room one by one, all disappointed that Tucker does not appear sick enough to warrant their immediate presence. Through this, Annie gets the Cliffs Notes of Tucker’s faults, but also his struggles to make up for the indiscretions of his youth, whereas her relationship with Duncan was a slow realization of all the insecurities and problematic personality traits he was hiding over 15 years.
While I adore the more overtly flirty aspects of Annie and Tucker’s burgeoning relationship, what’s most romantic about their connection is their free and open exchanges. These are two people with no expectations for the future, throwing caution to the wind while also managing their personal affairs like adults. It’s like Before Sunrise but run through a Nora Ephron filter. My favorite moment arrives when Tucker confides in Annie that he thinks his kids won’t forgive him because they hate him. “They don’t hate you,” she says. “They’re angry.” Tucker blinks his eyes and half-smiles as though he’d never thought of it before, and there’s something pretty engrossing about two people nudging one another to enlightenment.
The script — penned by Evgenia Peretz, Jim Taylor and Tamara Jenkins — doesn’t tidy up the relationship, as it so easily could have. Annie wants children, and Tucker has five of them (from different mothers), with only the youngest, 6-year-old Jackson (Azhy Robertson), being an active part of his life. In another story, Annie could have swooped in and exercised her maternal instincts on Tucker’s kids, but this story’s takeaway is more about having the patience to wait for what’s right than jumping headfirst into the closest wrong. Annie and Tucker’s romance is about as honest as they come, and remarkably mature.
Duncan still traipses in the background of this story, offering some comic relief and poignant ideas about the toxicity of fandom and blah-blah-blah, all the stuff we’ve gotten from Hornby adaptations before. Duncan is trying to live out his life through his idol’s, but his presence is mostly a reminder to the other characters that it could be worse — they could be Duncan.