Once, on a TV talk show interview, Janis Joplin scoffed at critics who pounce on rock music for hidden, deeper meanings, when (as she put it), “it’s just some guy going ‘shoobie-doobie.’”
Janis might have been describing the middle-aged music fan whose obsession with an obscure, has-been rocker fuels the plot in Juliet, Naked. It’s a wry divertimento for three voices: the obsessed fan, his neglected, fed-up girlfriend, and the reclusive rocker himself, the fantasy figure whose unexpected appearance in the others’ lives throws all of their worlds into comic turmoil.
The movie is based on a novel by Nick Hornby, that droll English scribe so adept at probing those tricky places where pop-culture fantasy and messy reality collide, especially in his first novel, High Fidelity. This movie adaptation, directed by TV comedy veteran Jesse Peretz, is not quite as successful as that one, story-wise, but it has enough acute comedy moments to keep viewers chuckling.
Adapted by screenwriters Evgenia Peretz and husband-and-wife Jim Taylor and Tamara Jenkins, the story is set in a fading seaside village on the English coast. Annie (a chipper and charming Rose Byrne) runs the local history museum inherited from her father. Approaching 40 herself, she’s spent years in a relationship with Duncan (Chris O’Dowd), a transplanted Irishman who teaches literature courses at the local college.
But Duncan spends most of his time in the basement, administering his website devoted to all things Tucker Crowe, an American singer-songwriter who was on his way to cult status among a chosen few fans before he disappeared from the music scene 25 years earlier. In private, Annie calls Duncan’s online audience “a community of 250 middle-aged men who deconstruct Crowe’s music,” discuss every minute detail of his career, and speculate wildly on what might have become of him.
When a previously lost demo tape of what would become Crowe’s most famous album, Juliet (the demo tape is called Juliet, Naked), surfaces in Duncan’s mailbox, he’s almost too overcome with emotion to boot it up. Annie, exasperated, posts a scathing review of the tape on Duncan’s website, which starts to fracture their already stale relationship. (When Duncan learns that Annie listened to the tape before he did, he feels “betrayed.”)
But Annie’s online review does garner one fan—Tucker Crowe himself (a frisky Ethan Hawke, rebounding from the gloom of First Reformed). He agrees that the work-in-progress tape should never have been made public, and the two strike up an unlikely email correspondence. After a lifetime of romantic liaisons producing multiple offspring, Tucker is long out of the music business, living in a garage on the property of his last girlfriend in upstate New York, raising their young son, Jackson (Azhy Robertson). But his and Annie’s separate worlds collide when Tucker and Jackson are called to London, where his teenage daughter is about to give birth.
Although Duncan has moved out of Annie’s house by the time Tucker comes calling (“I’d rather spend my time (online) with people who get Tucker Crowe,” he huffs), an uneasy triangle between the three of them is inevitable, or there’d be no story. Duncan’s awestruck disbelief at meeting his hero in the flesh (a very funny scene, largely improvised), is matched only by the pomposity with which Duncan tries to prove he knows more about Tucker than Tucker does himself.
The story itself is predictable at times, unresolved at others (a looming family crisis for Tucker is left hanging when the plot suddenly fast-forwards by a year). But the handling of the material is everything. The dialogue is sharp and witty. (When Tucker stumbles upon the shrine Duncan erected to him in Annie’s basement, he cries, “This is that syndrome where you fall in love with your captor!”) And the character relationships are well thought-out, especially the gradually-evolving friendship between Annie and Tucker. This isn’t a weighty film, but its pleasures are consistently entertaining.
*** (out of four)
With Rose Byrne, Ethan Hawke and Chris O’Dowd. Written by Evgenia Peretz and Jim Taylor & Tamara Jenkins. Based on the novel by Nick Hornby. Directed by Jesse Peretz. A Lionsgate/Roadside Attractions release. Rated R. 98 minutes.