Just as I was thinking that 2018 has been a down year for comedies, along comes “Juliet, Naked,” which got a limited release in theaters and is now on home video. It’s the sixth Nick Hornby book to be adapted for the screen, and my personal favorite. (And no, I’m not forgetting “High Fidelity” and “About a Boy.”) Featuring the pitch-perfect cast of Rose Byrne, Ethan Hawke and Chris O’Dowd, it left me misty-eyed with laughter and sadness – sometimes within the same scene – and features a funny yet sober examination of extreme music nerdery.
“High Fidelity’s” Rob Gordon is a hero in a stylized world, but O’Dowd’s Duncan doesn’t live in a cocoon of fellow music-lovers; he just wishes he did. Duncan is a college arts professor in a small England town whose second love is TV (“The Wire” is part of his syllabus) and whose first love is Tucker Crowe (Hawke), an American musician who put out one album, “Juliet,” a quarter-century ago that became a cult classic.
Duncan’s third love is Annie (Byrne), actually the film’s focal character. In a resigned voiceover, Annie says she doesn’t hold her also-ran status against Duncan. Annie had gone into this relationship with eyes open, but now she is wavering on their “no children” stance and also finds her museum curator gig to be rather “Groundhog Day”-ish.
Ironically, Annie and Tucker find they have regret in common when they exchange emails after Annie pens a negative online review to the titular stripped-down version of the album, a review that Tucker agrees with. She regrets not having kids, while he regrets having kids but blowing it by not being present. He is making up for it with young Jackson (Azhy Robertson), but in a hilarious yet poignant hospital-room scene, we meet Tucker’s scattered (in more ways than one) children and exes. It’s like a less ribald version of the opening of “American Pie 2” when people keep popping into Jim’s dorm room. As Annie later points out, Tucker’s kids don’t hate him, but yes, they are definitely mad at him.
Recently, moviegoers don’t seem to be getting many Apatow-style big-heart and big-laughs comedies with gut-busting set pieces (although “Blockers” gave it a shot this year). Directed by Jesse Peretz (“Our Idiot Brother”) and written by a trio including regular Alexander Payne collaborator Jim Taylor, “Juliet, Naked” is smaller than an Apatow blockbuster or even an arty Payne gem, not only by being under the radar, but also because it doesn’t aim for huge moments. It offers a nice string of medium-sized gags, like Duncan finding Annie behaving awkwardly in her knickers, which makes him wonder if she’s cheating on him. Nope, it’s something worse: She listened to “Juliet, Naked” before he had a chance to.
The humor grows naturally from the characters, whom the film loves but also critiques. “Juliet, Naked” doesn’t let Tucker off the hook for his absentee parenthood, it doesn’t excuse Duncan for his obsession over a musician, and it recognizes that Annie has chosen to stay in her hometown – no one forced her. Everyone has agency.
Yet the film has a warm vibe of forgiveness toward its characters; there are no heroes and villains, although characters do hurtful things. Duncan is the functional bad guy, but when he argues to Tucker that “Juliet” means a lot to him, and it doesn’t matter what the artist himself thinks about the work, he’s right. Annie is also right that Duncan’s obsession with Tucker’s life and song-inspiring heartbreak is inappropriate when the real Tucker (not the one Duncan and his fellow fanboys created in their minds) is sitting right there.
Tucker himself is more sketchily drawn. We know he’s a recovering alcoholic, and can presume that’s why he wasn’t around for his children’s formative years, but “Juliet, Naked” doesn’t dig into that. Hawke is so good in the role, though, that it doesn’t matter. And the actor also sings, on the soundtrack and once on screen. As faithful as this adaptation is, Hornby’s book of course does not have musical accompaniment. Real songwriters provide tunes to comprise the fictional “Juliet” album, and it feels right: folk-poppy cuts about heartbreak that are just deep enough for music geeks to dig, and just shallow enough that their obsession is amusing.
Hornby’s novel came out in 2009, but now we’re entering the post-hard-media era of music (some top-tier musicians don’t put out CDs anymore), and the film is set in present day. Still, “Juliet, Naked” does not seem dated. Sure, Duncan is living in the past, but hey, newly pressed vinyl is a real thing. Annie trudges (at least on the inside) to a job she dislikes, and Tucker has arguably not been living at all for 15 years. But obsession and regret – and laughter! (I don’t want to make this movie sound dour) – are timeless.
Tucker suggests Annie should give herself a pass for any part of her adult years when she was doing something worthwhile, like reading a good book. Presumably, watching a good movie counts, too, so you can enjoy “Juliet, Naked” without regret.