At the outset of the engaging Juliet, Naked, a British woman in the gone-stale second decade of a relationship notices one day that two packages have arrived in the mail — a pretty new dress, and a bootleg CD.
Annie (Rose Byrne) hopes the dress will cause her professor boyfriend Duncan (Chris O'Dowd) to see her with fresh eyes, but the CD ensures he will not — he runs an international fan site that worships the music of a '90s musician and legend-turned-recluse named Tucker Crowe, and the rare recording excites him in a way that Annie no longer does.
This scenario is right in the sweet spot of Nick Hornby, whose novel provides the source material. He specializes in stories about the obsessive love of music (High Fidelity) or of sports (Fever Pitch), in men who reach middle age without reaching maturity (About a Boy), and he's amusingly attuned to the way these factors complicate romantic love.
Juliet, Naked shifts the focus of the narrative to a woman, Annie, beautifully played by Byrne. She's able to suggest the entire arc of the faltering relationship with a few lines and gestures — we get a vivid sense of the interesting fellow her boyfriend once was, how charmed she must have been by his passion for art, and how disappointed she became that his passion morphed into a petrified worship of songs that were attached to youthful feelings she has outgrown.
She pours all of these frustrations into a post on Duncan's fan site. Duncan is offended, but one reader absolutely loves her post — Tucker Crowe (Ethan Hawke). He sends her a personal e-mail, she replies, and so begins an epistolary relationship (nicely and cleverly incorporated by director Jesse Peretz into the visual flow) that has all of the depth of feeling missing from her life with Duncan (this could be the first recorded case of an artist falling for a critic). All of this leads to Tucker making an impromptu trip to England, where they plan to meet.
You could call Juliet, Naked a romantic comedy, and you could probably predict with some accuracy how the relationships play out. But it's the details here that count, and they paint a substantive and truthful picture of middle age, and the way it is acquainted with regret and failure.
Crowe, for instance, has spent his years in obscurity taking responsibility for the mistakes of his youth — fulfilling obligations to the children he's had by different woman (it's a slightly more sincere take the profligate rock-star dad angle in Walk Hard: Dewey Cox Story).
Juliet, Naked skews more female that an archetypal Hornby story, also older. The characters exhibit the vulnerabilities that come with age. Hawke, in particular, projects them convincingly, and his time on screen with Byrne has both weight and charm.
The movie ends strangely, though, and the smartly written scenes that comprise the bulk of Juliet, Naked having us leaning forward in anticipation of a tidy flourish that never materializes. Instead, there is melancholy and ambiguity. Disappointing, but perhaps appropriate.