Fandom, as a whole, is a curious beast. A slice of culture finds an audience, and in turn, that audience may fantasise and obsess over this one thing, blowing the importance of the item out of proportion. Popular culture is going through some extremely toxic throes of fandom at the moment, which makes the exploration of fandom in Juliet, Naked all the more interesting.
Chris O’Dowd is Duncan, a meticulous, hardcore Tucker Crowe (Ethan Hawke) fan. Duncan runs a fan site, considering himself the one true source of all things Tucker Crowe – a nineties indie artist who released one album, Juliet, and then disappeared into nothingness, making the ‘facts’ that float on the internet about him mere conjecture. Rose Byrne is Annie, Duncan’s dependable girlfriend, stuck in a relationship that’s going nowhere, with Annie perennially playing second fiddle to anything and everything Tucker Crowe related. A rare, unplugged recording of Juliet arrives at their doorstep, causing Annie and Duncan argue about the quality of the album. Annie in turn posts a negative review of the new discovery on Duncan’s website, which surprisingly has her receiving an email from Tucker Crowe himself. Without Duncan’s knowledge, a relationship between Annie and Tucker blossoms.
As an adaptation of Nick Hornby’s book of the same name, Jesse Peretz’s (Our Idiot Brother, Girls) film loosely takes the tropes of a romantic comedy and adds in a fair amount of humanity and reality into the mix. It’s no surprise that Hornby is someone who is extremely intimate with the notion of fandom – what with his music obsessed High Fidelity, and the sports obsessed Fever Pitch, both showing people infatuated with a particular culture, and having that culture seep into their romantic lives. Juliet, Naked takes this step a little further, and unlike High Fidelity or Fever Pitch, Hornby takes away the romanticised view of being an obsessed fan and instead looks at the impact a lifelong obsession has on a relationship, as well as the impact it has on the artist who is being obsessed over. Hornby’s text is transformed thanks to the great work by a trio of reliable voices – Evgenia Peretz (Our Idiot Brother), Jim Taylor (Election, Sideways), and Tarama Jenkins (The Savages, Slums of Beverly Hills) – who come together to weave together a great narrative with well rounded characters.
Part man child, part well reasoned adult, Duncan is a flawed figure who avoids the trappings of the stereotypical fanboy figure – all unwashed and uncivilised. Like many fans who pore over their pop culture item of choice, Duncan holds onto Tucker Crowe’s album like a buoy in an ocean of undiscovered albums. To him, Juliet is an undiscovered, misunderstood masterpiece, and yet, the stench of elitism hangs over Duncan, with it being quickly apparent that if Tucker Crowe were at all successful, he would not be hanging onto this artist the way he does. To him, Juliet speaks a truth that only he understands – as if he’s the only person to ever feel heartbreak. As he spits at Tucker, art is to the artist as water is to the plumber. It’s an almost nonsensical line, but the intention is clear – once the artist has created the art, it no longer belongs to them. Chris O’Dowd has often portrayed oafish, lovable guys, so it’s great to see him explore his dickish side in the way he does here.
He’s equally paired with the always reliable Rose Byrne, who carries the film as the optimistic, but weathered thirty-something Annie. Byrne’s Annie is someone reluctantly trapped in a small town somewhere in England by the men in her life – her father who has passed away, leaving the dank museum under her care, and then Duncan, her boyfriend who scoffs at the notion of having kids because the world is overpopulated (but really, it’s because kids would intrude on his precious Tucker Crowe time). It’s Annie’s journey that is most interesting in Juliet, Naked – so often in real life and in culture, women get second fiddle to the mans obsession, so when Annie breaks free and starts to establish herself as an ‘independent woman’, she does so by embarking on a journey of self discovery. Whether that’s by acting as a wingperson for her lesbian sister, Ros (a hilarious Lily Brazier), or by engaging in a romantic relationship with Tucker Crowe, Annie’s growth is enjoyable to watch.
Yet, as with many films whose centre figure is an almost mythical artist who may or may not transcend culture, Juliet, Naked hinges on the apparent talent of who is playing Tucker Crowe. If the actors singing or performance isn’t good enough, then the believability of the obsession goes out the window – who would be obsessed over an obviously average singer? Fortunately, Ethan Hawke’s turn as the retired musician works perfectly. Not only does Hawke carry the ethos of the nineties indie scene perfectly (it’s hard not to see his Tucker Crowe as a response to the boom of Reality Bites), but he also carries the weathered Gen X-er well. A lifetime of being a layabout guy has caught up with him, relying on royalty cheques that keep pouring in as he lives in his ex’s shed, he also has to deal with an impending grandchild and a seemingly endless swarm of kids he didn’t know he had coming out of the woodwork.
Juliet, Naked is a timely reminder of how great an actor Ethan Hawke is – that was already evident in his work with Richard Linklater, or Predestination, or Training Day, but it’s even more obvious given his turn here, and in the same year, First Reformed. As one of the best working actors today. In the same breath, it’s easy to dismiss Rose Byrne as someone who frequently makes this kind of material (see, I Give it a Year, The Internship, or Adult Beginners), yet, in these films, she is often the MVP, delivering a humanistic performance that elevates the text above its genre tropes.
Juliet, Naked isn’t revolutionary, but it is extremely entertaining. It’s got heart, laughs, and moments that’ll pluck your heartstrings just a little. The trio of great performances are well serviced by a stellar script and solid directing. A nice, pleasant film that feels like a perfect companion film (and in a way, a response to) to High Fidelity. While the exploration of fandom could have used a little more bite, it does at least suggest that maybe folks should take a look at what they’re obsessed with and take a moment to self reflect to see whether it’s healthy or not. After all, what may be meaningful to you as a consumer, may be entirely trivial and meaningless to the artist who created it.
Director: Jesse Peretz
Cast: Rose Byrne, Ethan Hawke, Chris O’Dowd
Writers: Evgenia Peretz, Jim Taylor, Tamara Jenkins, (Based on the novel Juliet, Naked by Nick Hornby)