Juliet, Naked fails to live up to the promise of Nick Hornby’s pedigree

By Leigh Monson

   It’s a little bit surreal to think that the film adaptation of Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity came out eighteen years ago, particularly because no adaptation of Hornby’s novels has lived up to that singular marriage of cinema and music. Perhaps it is unfair to judge Juliet, Naked on a comparison to a film which shares none of the creative talent from High Fidelity save for the two both being Hornby adaptations, but Juliet, Naked feels so much like it belongs in that same vein that the comparisons are going to be inevitable as audiences leave the theater disappointed. But even without that connection, Juliet, Naked is a plodding excuse of a romantic comedy, not exactly bad, but sleepy and tiresome all the same.
   Rose Byrne stars as Annie Platt, a woman getting by in a dull life in a beachside English town with her artistically obsessed boyfriend Duncan (Chris O’Dowd). Duncan’s particular obsession is Tucker Crowe, a musical artist who created what Duncan considers a seminal album before suddenly disappearing from the music scene decades prior. When a demo of that album, titled Juliet, Naked, pops up in Duncan and Annie’s mailbox, Annie leaves a scathing review online that is responded to by none other than Tucker Crowe himself (Ethan Hawke). The pair start a text message dialogue that leads to romantic affection, as Annie begins to realize that she can have more than the meager opportunities her small town and self-centered boyfriend can offer her.
   The bones of this story are very solid, to the point where I’m certain that they work much better on the page than they do in the film’s cinematic execution. Tucker is an engaging character, an amalgam of regrets over past mistakes that he tries to bury but continually catch up with him, and he acts as a thematic counterpoint to Annie as she realizes that she has never taken any risks worth regretting. It’s a character pairing that works in theory, and Duncan’s continual swing between fanboying over Tucker and trying to maintain the shallow pretense of romance with Annie makes for a bizarre love triangle that fuels the narrative’s drama.
   The crux of the matter lies in the lack of genuine chemistry and humor in what is presented as a romantic comedy. As compelling as reading emails back and forth between potential lovers might be in a novel, the film’s choice to show this as Byrne and Hawke glancing doe-eyed at computer screens as voiceover narrates their exchanges does not carry the same kind of romantic spark. It feels so lifeless that, when Annie and Tucker finally do meet in person, the supposed affection they feel for one another feels wooden and lifeless. You don’t root for these people to get together because they don’t feel like they belong together as anything more than tepid acquaintances. This is only further hampered by the film’s attempts at comedy, which seem to want to rely on characters making each other and themselves feel awkward but never quite lands a joke more complex than people talking over one another. The smiles provoked by the film are more sympathetic for the attempt than appreciative of the comic chops of the actors, who all have turned in better work elsewhere.
   Juliet, Naked is competently constructed and doesn’t have anything wrong with it from a narrative or structural standpoint, but it feels entirely devoid of energy, as if no one involved really cared about what they were making and were just picking up easy paychecks. That may or may not be the case, but those expecting a worthy successor to High Fidelity are going to need to keep waiting, because the music of Juliet, Naked isn’t liable to move you.

2.5/5 stars
Leigh Monson is technically a licensed attorney but somehow thinks being a film critic is a lot more fun. Leigh loves both award darlings and hilariously bad films, does not believe in superhero movie fatigue, and calls it like he sees it.