“JULIET, NAKED” — 3 stars — Rose Byrne, Ethan Hawke, Chris O'Dowd, Jimmy O. Yang, Lily Newmark; R (language); in general release
A young woman becomes pen pals with her boyfriend’s favorite musician. That's the overall premise of Jesse Peretz's “Juliet, Naked,” which offers an amusing commentary on the nature of obsessive fandom in the internet era.
Based on the Nick Hornby novel, the film first introduces us to Annie (Rose Byrne). She's in her 30s and works at a museum in a small British seaside port. She’s several years into a long-term but increasingly lifeless relationship with a professor named Duncan (Chris O’Dowd), and up until recently, they were against the idea of having kids — but Annie’s biological clock is changing her mind.
Duncan teaches pop culture at the local college, but his true passion — and passion may be an understatement — is for the brief musical career of Tucker Crowe (Ethan Hawke), an indie artist who broke onto the scene in the early 1990s with an album called “Juliet,” then vanished.
Duncan runs a website dedicated to unpacking every possible nuance of Crowe’s tiny catalogue and has become a self-appointed expert on the artist. Annie tolerates Duncan’s mania, which is headquartered in their basement with a de facto shrine to Crowe.
The story kicks into gear when Annie posts a trolling review of a recently unearthed demo version of the “Juliet” album — dubbed “Juliet, Naked” — to Duncan’s site under a pseudonym, and the artist himself comes out of hiding to respond. Funny enough, Crowe happens to agree with Annie's assessment and is bemused by all the diehard fans like Duncan who are obsessed with his decades-old work.
After this initial contact, Crowe and Annie launch into a pen pal relationship that drives the rest of the plot. Crowe is kind of a mess — though not of the variety Duncan and his fellow fans have speculated — and Annie has caught him as he’s trying to repair all the damage he’s done with the first half of his life.
In a sense, “Juliet, Naked” is a romantic comedy, though that doesn’t quite feel like the best way to describe the relationship between Crowe and Annie. At the same time, they aren’t just friends, either. The result may be a disappointment to audiences looking for a “date night” kind of option, but "Juliet, Naked" also feels like a more original and sincere story that isn't going for easy cliches. However, some may be more turned off by the film's scattered R-rated dialogue, which doesn't feel all that essential for its characters.
The music-heavy subject matter will feel familiar to anyone who has seen other films adapted from Hornby’s novels over the years, such as 2002’s “About a Boy” and “High Fidelity,” which saw John Cusack as a record store owner in late-1990s Chicago. “Juliet, Naked” doesn’t quite measure up to those films, but Hornby fans will still enjoy the familiar territory.
Peretz’s film draws a lot of strength from Hawke and Byrne, who anchor their lead roles and inhabit characters that don’t easily fall into cookie-cutter stereotypes. And O’Dowd continues to demonstrate a knack for bringing amusing, awkward supporting characters to life, as he has done previously in efforts like 2009’s “Pirate Radio,” “Thor: The Dark World” and the BBC’s “The IT Crowd.”
Altogether, your take on “Juliet, Naked” may come down to your expectations. If you’re expecting a traditional romance or romantic comedy, you might come away disappointed. If you’re looking for a more unique and potentially ambiguous look at an out-of-the-ordinary relationship — with some wry social commentary on internet fandom — “Juliet, Naked” is a lot of fun.
“Juliet, Naked" is rated R for language; running time: 105 minutes.