Jesse Peretz’s Juliet, Naked seemingly wants to revitalize the rom-com genre while still existing firmly inside the cliches these types of movies trade in. It wants to be a touching romantic comedy while gently reaching out toward more morally complex topics and straying away from more traditionally crowd-pleasing-type stuff while still having the quirky best friend and the precious child. That it’s based on a Nick Hornby novel — the same person who wrote the source material for Stephen Frear’s very untraditional rom-com High Fidelity (2000) — makes complete sense. Each trades in the complicated lives of their characters while dabbling in the world of rock music. The problem with Juliet, Naked, however, is that it never quite has a grasp on its characters or rather why its characters ever want to be in the same room, let alone the same movie.
The star of the film is Annie (Rose Byrne), who’s been stuck in the same little British seaside town in the same functional, yet withering relationship with Duncan (Chris O’Dowd) for a huge chunk of her life. She’s yearning for a change (including children, which Duncan is opposed to on principle) while her boyfriend stays in a sense of stasis, pontificating about the importance of his favorite TV shows and particularly his favorite musician, the reclusive Tucker Crowe (Ethan Hawke). After an argument over a demo of Tucker’s most famous album that ends up in the couple’s house, Annie starts a sudden, surprising and secretive email correspondence with Tucker, who’s living out his post-fame life living in his ex’s garage and avoiding his numerous illegitimate children.
After Duncan cheats on Annie and they split up, most of the movie revolves around Tucker and Annie’s burgeoning relationship, especially when Tucker ends up in England and decides to stay with her briefly. In some ways, the sudden romantic entanglement makes sense. Duncan is stunted emotionally and ignores Annie’s wants and needs, while the intimacy of Annie and Tucker’s pen-pal relationship makes practical sense in creating a close bond between the two. However, it comes off as disingenuous.
The problem here is that there’s nothing appealing about Tucker, either. He’s just as dismissive of Annie, while also being a total screw-up, a slob and a boor. The idea that he’s some great musical artist goes out the window when you hear his mopey, proto-Bright Eyes pap and is demolished when he caterwauls his way through The Kink’s “Waterloo Sunset.” Annie is constantly in the background, with no one, including herself, ever really being concerned about what’s right for her. There’s no attraction, no chemistry here between Annie and Tucker, and while you can see them being friends, sexual partners is entering the realm of science fiction. It’s a romantic comedy without the comedy.
This doesn’t mean that the film is a complete dud; it just has some deeply faulty structural issues. Juliet, Naked is on much stronger footing when it wants to discuss the role of the artist and the fan. The dinner scene where Tucker and Duncan argue over the importance and quality of Tucker’s work, with the latter hating it and the former telling him that art isn’t for the artist, the film touches on something much more thoughtful and intelligent than its rom-com DNA wants to get into. There are hints of a smarter, more interesting film in here, but the romance it wants to force on its characters does it no favors. Rated R for language. Now playing at Fine Arts Theatre, Carolina Cinemark.