It’s every obsessive music fan’s worst fear: What if your ex fell in love with your favorite rock star? It’s the kind of thing that might keep “High Fidelity” hero Rob Gordon awake at night, pacing around his apartment as he sweats over every part of that scenario. It goes without saying that he’d feel betrayed (and probably by both parties), but it’s also true that he’d be jealous, and perhaps more of his ex than his idol.
Inevitably, “High Fidelity” author Nick Hornby got around to writing a novel about that very nightmare in 2009, “Juliet, Naked” justifying such a particular (and decidedly male) strain of paranoia by sidelining the Rob Gordon type from “his” story and focusing instead on the unexpected romance that blossoms in his absence. If only Jesse Peretz’s lifeless adaptation had abandoned him completely, perhaps it could have spent less effort on empty hero worship, and more on turning the rest of its characters into believable human beings.
Chris O’Dowd stars as Duncan, a wholly useless human being who’s deep into a Jeff Mangum-like rocker named Tucker Crowe (Ethan Hawke), who dropped off the face of the Earth after the release of his mid-’90s record, “Juliet.” Despite the fact that every cut we hear sounds like an early Wilco C-side, Duncan and 200 other sad men around the world are still fixated on Crowe, and regularly share the latest rumors on a message board that Duncan runs from the basement of the house he shares with his longtime girlfriend in a seaside English town.
So far as Annie (Rose Byrne) is concerned, her partner is in love with another man. There are three people in their fraught relationship, Tucker included in absentia, and Annie is definitely the odd one out. When a mysterious demo version of Tucker’s album shows up at their house, it’s no wonder Annie logs on to the message board and tears it apart.
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It doesn’t seem like Annie and Duncan are destined to be together, chiefly because she’s an open-hearted and understanding person who’s wasting the best years of a beautiful life, while he’s the kind of guy who would — and does — have sex with the first stranger who shares even a fraction of his Crowe fandom. Duncan is so loathsome that we can’t help but derive a certain amount of sadistic pleasure from Tucker’s decision to come out of hiding and privately reply to Annie’s post; it turns out that she’s not the only one who hates his music. And so an intimate pen-pal friendship is born, putting the movie on an inexorable track towards catastrophe. We know that Tucker and Annie will eventually crash into each other; the only interesting question is what they might be able to salvage from the rubble.
Of course, Tucker’s life is already in ruins. Now a total burnout who’s living in his ex-wife’s garage and raising the only one of his (many) children who he’s actually seen in the last 10 years, the faded rock star is leeching off the last of his royalties and trying to figure out where his thirties and forties went. Hawke, at peak shagginess, plays the guy as an absent father who’s never unpacked his baggage; his heart may be clogged, but at least it’s in the right place. The longer we spend with him, the more it seems like Tucker just went on a bender and wandered out of a Nancy Meyers movie. It would be great if we could follow him back there, as the tonally unsure “Juliet, Naked” never finds solid footing of its own.
Welding the flow and logic of a romantic comedy to the faintly ridiculous soul of a melodrama, the film is never clear about whose story its telling, or what it might want for them. Is this a “You’ve Got Mail” situation, or is it something more complex than that? The laughs are few and far between, but also too self-insistent to make room for any real emotion.
Despite Hornby’s source material and a script by “Private Life” mastermind Tamara Jenkins (among three other credited writers), Peretz’s second feature is as listless and lost as his first, 2011’s “My Idiot Brother.” It’s as though the accomplished TV director, whose recent credits include the likes of “Girls” and “Glow,” hasn’t quite solved how to sustain a certain vibe for the entire length of a feature. Several discrete moments display a strong internal logic — there’s one especially effective bit where Annie meets Tucker at a hospital only to find herself surrounded by his entire brood — but that cohesive spirit evaporates between scenes.
“Juliet, Naked” takes far too long to disabuse itself from the notion that Duncan is the lead character, while Tucker and Annie’s harried flirtation always feels stilted, stuck between fantasy and reality. They’re missing the small, desperate transactions of faith necessary to any believable romance, and that absence is further underlined by how Peretz shies away from the show-stopping confrontations that most rom-coms would kill for. The bit where Duncan finally meets Tucker in the worst possible context should be an awkward moment for the ages, but it barely makes a dent. The ending is similarly underplayed, the film far too unformed to get away with it.
We’re left to glom on to the details we get (like the quaint town where Annie has lived all her life, or the gig poster that suggests Tucker Crowe once shared a bill with Drowning Pool), and to question the ones we don’t (why doesn’t Peretz actually let us sit with any of the original tunes that Hawke sings on the soundtrack and let us form our own opinion of his character’s legacy?). It’s almost frustrating that Hawke and Byrne are both so watchable, as their megawatt charisma leaves you hooked on the line long after you’ve lost interest in the bait. But as Tucker Crowe might say: “We never value things that come easy,” and so Peretz’ lovable cast is ultimately taken for granted in a movie that’s way too hard to love.
“Juliet, Naked” premiered in the Premieres section of the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.