Published Aug 13, 2018British novelist Nick Hornby has made a career out of writing touching rom-coms about shitty, selfish dudes. Most famously, High Fidelity was about a guy whose love for his record collection outweighs his love for his girlfriend, and About a Boy was about a wealthy lay-about who invents a fake son as a ploy to meet chicks.
Now there's Juliet, Naked. This latest adaptation features two rather shitty dudes: Tucker Crowe (Ethan Hawke), a cultishly adored yet reclusive songwriter (à la Jeff Mangum) who has fathered a brood of neglected children with a string of women; the other is Duncan (Chris O'Dowd), a pompous fanboy in a quaint British seaside town who runs an online Tucker Crowe forum and is in a loveless 15-year relationship with the unfulfilled Annie (Rose Byrne).
Unbeknownst to Duncan, Annie strikes up a secret email correspondence with Tucker, and their exchange follows in the footsteps of You've Got Mail, by exploring the confessional intimacy that can emerge between total strangers online. Which is to say, Juliet, Naked is an old-school rom-com in the mould of your '90s faves; in particular, the way director Jesse Peretz deals with bumbling past partners and poignant father-son relationships is strongly reminiscent to Sleepless in Seattle.
The characters are all flawed, but the actors bring such warmth to their roles that they inspire empathy rather than judgment. Ethan Hawke plays Tucker with the same wry, cynical charm that he brought to the Before Sunrise series, and Rose Byrne makes Annie instantly relatable as a woman watching her adult years slip through her fingers. As for Duncan, he's completely stuck up his own ass, but Chris O'Dowd brilliantly conveys a deep well of insecurity beneath a thin veneer of self-importance. The small cast gives plenty of time to get attached to the characters in a tight runtime under two hours.
Crucially, Juliet, Naked succeeds where so many other movies about rock stars have failed: the original music is actually good enough to make Tucker Crowe's success plausible. Conor Oberst (Bright Eyes), Ryan Adams and Robyn Hitchcock helped write Crowe's originals, and they bring the requisite amounts of raw emotion and country-rock professionalism. Throw in a soundtrack that includes Wilco and Red House Painters, and the musical aesthetic is one of elegant, melancholic folk rock.
With these solid tunes, humour that pokes fun without being mean, and drama that exposes the pains of aging without being cynical, Juliet, Naked is big-hearted and totally unpretentious. For those longing for a rom-com of the Meg Ryan/Tom Hanks variety, this one is love at first sight.