There’s no one actually named Juliet in Jesse Peretz’s “Juliet, Naked,” but the new Nick Hornby adaptation does hinge on the disarming performance of its leading lady: Rose Byrne as Annie, a woman trapped between two very different men. First, there’s her long-time boyfriend Duncan (Chris O’Dowd), a normal enough guy defined by his one unique trait, a decades-long obsession with indie rocker Tucker Crowe (Ethan Hawke).
Based on the 2009 Hornby novel of the same name, “Juliet, Naked” presents a familiar figure in Duncan, calling to mind the similar Hornby protagonists of “About A Boy” and “High Fidelity”: an infantile aesthete who seems to think that being creepily knowledgeable about another person’s art is a suitable stand-in for having his own life. When the film opens, Annie is struggling with her own kind of mid-life crisis. She’s lived in the same small town for too long, toiling away at a job that’s been passed down through her family, wondering what’s next.
Unfortunately, what’s next is a bad breakup with Duncan and the subsequent freeing of Annie’s own voice. While there’s another romance on the horizon, “Juliet, Naked” finds its heart in letting Annie stumble towards her own destiny, even if it doesn’t necessarily involve a man. It’s a coming-of-age tale, with Byrne rightly earning its focus.
Tucker hasn’t been in the public eye for a long time (not since his debut album, “Juliet”), but middle-aged Duncan is still running a meticulous fan site that catalogues his every move alongside a small group of fellow fans. When Duncan ends up in the possession of the eponymous “Juliet, Naked” — an acoustic version of that first album — it’s what ultimately splits him and Annie. He loves it, she hates it, and when she posts her own review of the album on Duncan’s site, all hell breaks loose. Eventually, Tucker himself arrives on the scene, with Hawke tapping into the kind of rangy, appealing Gen-X everyman role he’s long excelled at.
But “Juliet, Naked” isn’t about Duncan and Tucker bonding over a forgotten time; it’s about Tucker and Annie coming together in the strangest of circumstances, breeding a throwback rom-com in the process. That bad review she posted? Tucker loves it, and when he and Annie become pen pals, her sheltered life starts to open up.
“She’s smart and she’s witty and she has a keen irony about her,” Byrne told IndieWire. “I think immediately it gets into her becoming rebellious. I think a lot of people struggle with why she would go with the Tucker Crowe, but I think that’s the point, is that he’s a risk. That’s why she’s doing it, because she’s been in this sort of safe bet for too long.”
Bryne was a fan of the book from way back, and when she came on board the project, but Peretz had initially imagined that the characters would be slightly older (Kate Winslet was briefly attached to the Annie role). But the filmmaker was intrigued by Byrne’s interest in the material. For one thing, she was eager to figure out a way to work around one of the inevitable losses of a book to film adaptation: no more narration to get inside Annie’s head during a strange time in her previously sheltered life.
The script (credited to Evgenia Perez, Jim Taylor, and Tamara Jenkins) added in voiceover, but mostly, it’s Byrne muscling her way into a story that, at first blush, looks like it’s focused on two immature man-children.
“One of the tricky things is that, really, it’s her movie,” Peretz said. “Her character is, by definition, a kind of repressed, English character who is more of like a caretaker, not really taking care of herself. She’s more reactive. And then you have these two male characters that are so much sort of immediately bigger characters that pop off the screen.”
The movie navigates its gender divide with a keen comedic sensibility. “I’ve been doing much more broad comedies lately and this is more subtle,” Byrne said, referring studio hits like “Bridesmaids” and “Neighbors.” The humor in “Juliet, Naked” hails from a different universe. “It’s Nick Hornby and I think that’s such a definitive tone, instantly. He’s so singular with his style and his writing,” she said. “It’s very funny, but like great comedy, it’s also very dramatic.”
Byrne’s performance turns “Juliet, Naked” from being a story about the perils of toxic fandom into the kind of bonafide romantic comedy that has recently starting to stage a long-gestating comeback. This week is also seeing the wide release of the groundbreaking rom-com “Crazy Rich Asians,” while Netflix has begun carving out a space for the genre, thanks to films like “Set It Up” and “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before.” “Juliet, Naked” is the sort of indie-leaning, mid-budget film that used to dominate the space, and that it’s arriving now signals that perhaps there is still room for it at the box office.
“I feel like, on some level, I’m mystified,” Peretz said when asked about the state of the rom-com. “In terms of what kind of movies people are seeing and all the kind of movies that people aren’t seeing that people used to watch. … I understood that this was ultimately a rom-com, but I never really admitted [that] to myself. I’m really happy that we made that work without me consciously trying to figure out ‘how to do a rom-com that works in 2018.'”
For Byrne, “it’s a kind of movie you don’t really see that anymore, and it’s charming,” she said. “I wish I could come up with a more sophisticated word, but it really, truly is. It’s a real crowd-pleaser. And it’s not like a gentle romantic comedy.”
Roadside Attractions will open “Juliet, Naked” in limited release on Friday, August 17, with further cities and dates to follow.