Juliet, Naked — in which, just so you know, there is no nudity and nobody named Juliet — marks a milestone in the interminable Generation-X midlife crisis. Ethan Hawke becomes a grandpa. Is that a spoiler? A shocker? An occasion for tears? For schadenfreude?
Let me clarify. I don’t mean simply that the character Hawke plays — an initially enigmatic, eventually pathetic, finally endearing musician named Tucker Crowe — is the begetter of a begetter. That’s just acting. The thing is that Tucker is one of those invented personages who partakes of the cultural mojo of his portrayer. He released a seminal album in 1993, the year before Hawke’s appearance in the seminal Reality Bites. It is Hawke’s (quite credible) voice that we hear in Tucker’s old hits and lost demos, and his angular, youthful, beautiful visage that we glimpse in fake-vintage posters and publicity photos. At least on the level of casting, Juliet, Naked, directed by Jesse Peretz (Our Idiot Brother) and based on Nick Hornby’s novel, seems designed to make some of us feel old.
It also made this aging ’90s dude feel a wee bit grumpy. This is not the fault of Hawke, nor of Chris O’Dowd and Rose Byrne, who play the other sides of a romantic triangle taking shape in the English coastal town of Sandcliff. They are all charming. The film’s reference points, invented and otherwise, are faultlessly deployed. The Wire is evoked in an academic setting, with the obligatory Dickens and Shakespeare name-checks wrapped in several layers of eye-rolling self-consciousness. Pop songs are cued in with gentle irony and winsome sincerity. Vintage T-shirts are worn the same way. It me, as the kids say.
Like High Fidelity, still the definitive distillation, on page and screen, of Hornby’s genial cool-guy sensibility, Juliet, Naked hinges on an affectionately critical view of musical obsession. Annie (Byrne), a curator at a provincial museum formerly run by her father, lives with Duncan (O’Dowd), a lecturer in cinema and the world’s biggest Tucker Crowe fan. He runs a website devoted to his idol — a bit of a digital throwback to the book’s 2009 setting, though the movie seems to take place in the present — and pays more attention to his fellow online Croweheads than to Annie.
The malaise in their 15-year relationship reaches a crisis after Duncan comes by a bootleg CD of acoustic versions of the songs on Juliet, Tucker’s legendary breakup album and the last thing he released before dropping out of sight. Annie posts a negative review on Duncan’s site, and then hears from the artist himself. They strike up an email flirtation, which simmers for a while as 25 years’ worth of blank space in Tucker’s life is crosshatched in. He has been collecting exes and producing offspring, growing gray and shaggy and looking after his son Jackson (Azhy Robertson) while living in Jackson’s mother’s garage.
Circumstances bring Tucker and Jackson to London and then to Sandcliff. Duncan, who has screwed things up pretty badly with Annie, discovers that his hero is now his rival. Peretz and the screenwriters (Evgenia Peretz, the director’s sister, is credited along with Tamara Jenkins and Jim Taylor) find an amiable farcical groove, and the actors embrace the ridiculousness of the circumstances without overdoing it. Tucker’s impromptu performance of the Kinks’ Waterloo Sunset is a high point of sweetness and absurdity, and Hawke gets it just right.
But the abundant, generally on-target sociological details and comic observations feel overdone and superficial, like an elaborately patterned rug laid over an unfinished floor. Annie’s romantic dilemma may be the center of Juliet, Naked, but Annie herself is a thinly conceived character, sketched with gallant protectiveness rather than psychological insight. The men in her life are complicated, difficult, at times impossibly selfish and obtuse, but they are permitted to be interesting in ways that she is not.
There is something tiresome and incurious about the film’s romanticism, which rests on the canard that girls aren’t really into music. They like musicians and babies — and having babies with musicians — but don’t share in either the creative passion that motivates Tucker or the ardent devotion that occupies Duncan. The fact that this is presented as a compliment, as evidence of female superiority, doesn’t make it better. The guys are kind of childish, and Annie and most of the other women in the movie are much more sensible and mature, but it’s still the dudes who demand most of the attention, and the women who are expected to derive satisfaction from granting it. I bet someone from my generation could make a great record about that.