British author Nick Hornby has made a career out of coddling fanboys. His biggest success is the story of an aimless bachelor living off a long-ago Christmas hit from his songwriter dad: About a Boy was made into a winning comedy starring Hugh Grant, featuring the music of Badly Drawn Boy.
The group’s name is an apt description of many Hornby protagonists, inevitably shaky Peter Pan types — badly drawn boys, indeed. Consider High Fidelity, the tale of rock-and-roll lifers who attempt to forestall looming mid-life crisis by working in a record store. Or Fever Pitch, about grown men addicted to sports.
(Reporter: “Where do the Sox rank in terms of importance in your life?”
Fanboy Ben: “I say the Red Sox … sex … and breathing.”)
Based on a 2009 novel, Juliet, Naked is the story of two more Hornby heroes who fail to get their priorities straight.
Tucker Crowe (Ethan Hawke) is a ‘90s folk rocker abandoned by his muse and sleeping in his ex-wife’s garage in exchange for babysitting help. Duncan (Chris O’Dowd) is the cult hero’s fanboy, an American studies prof living across the Atlantic.
There is a funny moment early on when Duncan, who only tolerates his English girlfriend Annie (Rose Byrne), shows a stranger around their seaside apartment, a photo-filled shrine to Crowe in his heartthrob days.
“He’s so gorgeous,” the woman says, admiring an early snapshot.
“Thank you,” Duncan blushes.
The film takes an irresistible turn when a package arrives for Duncan — a demo of Crowe’s putative masterpiece, Juliet, but without strings or orchestra. Duncan composes his usual glowing review of Juliet, Naked. But this time Annie offers a dissenting opinion: Sounds like Crowe’s trying to “squeeze a few quid out of a long dead career,” she writes (in the feedback section of Duncan’s piece, no less).
Soon, their breakup is underway. With help from a third party: Crowe himself.
“I couldn’t explain it better myself,” he responds to Annie’s criticism, before asking her about herself … and kicking the film, and a romance, into high gear.
Adult fans of the romcom will find much to enjoy here. Byrne is the Best Drawn Woman to emerge from a Hornby film: Funny, smart, sensible, yet so starved for adventure that even misadventure will do. While O’Dowd is recognizably credible as the self-infatuated website bully, critics will doubtless be forced to watch his pronouncements through partially closed hands, wondering …
Am I that big an ass?
Hawke is good, too — an intriguing combination of bluster and recrimination. But while the American actor, who has proven his ability to talk about relationships in the past (particularly in the Before trilogy with Julie Delpy), it must be said he doesn’t quite pull off singing about love. Except for the actor’s lilting version of The Kinks’ “Waterloo Sunset,” the music in Juliet, Naked is blandly derivative — the kind of breathy smarm that turns folk singers into bartenders.
Another knock: the film lacks the supporting cast that made About a Boy infectious fun. Crowe’s children and ex-partners pop up everywhere, to little effect. Nor does Annie’s wisecracking sister (Megan Dodds) bring much to the party.
Still, grownup couples in need of a ticklish love story in an air-conditioned movie theatre could do worse than Juliet, Naked. Just skip buying the soundtrack; order a large soda instead.
With two straws, of course.