At a time when every other movie, even the rom-coms, seems to contain political subtext — or, as in the case of “BlacKkKlansman,” overtly political text — it’s a relief to see a bagatelle come along like “Juliet, Naked.” Described as a “98-minute diversion” by producers at a recent screening, the romantic comedy is just that: a sweet-tart confection that, like lemon sorbet, cleanses a palate gone sour from too many cinematic servings of the heavy stuff.
Based on Nick Hornby’s 2009 novel, “Juliet” stars Rose Byrne as Annie, the curator of a local history museum in a small English seaside town. Annie lives — neither particularly happily nor unhappily — with boyfriend Duncan (Chris O’Dowd, funny as ever in his low-key way), a film professor at the local college whose lectures make comparisons between “The Wire” and Greek tragedy.
But that pretentiousness pales in comparison to the seriousness with which Duncan takes his hobby: a fan website devoted to Tucker Crowe (Ethan Hawke), an American cult musician who, after releasing his seminal 1993 album “Juliet,” seemingly disappeared off the face of the Earth.
When a bootleg CD surfaces featuring unplugged demo recordings from that album, Annie, who has had it up to her ears with Duncan’s fanboy-ism, posts a negative review of the CD online. This not only leads to some minor tensions with her live-in beau, but more important, to an email correspondence between Annie and Tucker, who, it seems, isn’t hiding out, but simply living below the radar in his ex-wife’s garage in Upstate New York.
Tucker happens to agree with Annie’s assessment of his music.
It’s a classic love triangle — with Tucker and Annie, as email pen pals, slowly coming to the realization that they may have feeling for each other, and with Duncan playing the jealous third wheel. Jealous, that is, of Tucker, not Annie.
Director Jesse Peretz, a former musician who turned to filmmaking, plays this familiar scenario’s comedy not in power chords but grace notes, finding lovely nuance in the smallest of character interactions. In his screenplay — written with Tamara Jenkins (“Savages”) and Jim Taylor (“Sideways”) — Peretz tells a story that is ultimately not about three people, but all human connection. (A founding member of the band Lemonheads, Peretz has assembled several indie musicians, including Conor Oberst and Robyn Hitchcock, to write the film’s songs of romantic love and loss, on which Hawke sings quite nicely.)
It is Tucker who most obviously embodies the film’s themes.
The father of five kids, by four different women, all of whom manifest widely varying levels of estrangement and/or attachment, the character struggles with the concept of lifetime pair bonding. So does the film, which examines the attachments we choose — or have thrust upon us — from many sides. Tucker and Annie actually meet when Tucker flies to England to visit his pregnant daughter (Ayoola Smart), who is about to give birth. Naturally, comedy ensues: Duncan can’t believe that Annie has managed to meet his idol before he has.
But also, in small ways, there is wisdom here.
For instance: The film avoids the neat happily-ever-afters of so many stories of this ilk. In its brisk 98 minutes, there will be some bittersweet leave-takings, along with one particularly sad I-never-need-to-hear-from-you-again. Mostly, however, “Juliet, Naked” is about our capacity for hope. Without it, the film argues, why would anyone be so foolish as to try something new?
R. At area theaters. Contains crude language. 98 minutes