“Juliet, Naked” didn’t cause a sensation or blow the fuses out the Eccles Theater at the Sundance Film Festival on Friday night — but if it’s possible to charm the roof off the place, director Jesse Peretz’s adaptation of the Nick Hornby novel might just have turned the trick.
The film is a lovely low-key comedy with a rock ‘n’ roll heart, with Rose Byrne, Chris O’Dowd and Ethan Hawke giving us a trio of deftly and subtly drawn performances from Hornby’s deep trough of memorable characters.
The British writer was clearly part of the reason that buyers packed the Eccles and expectations were high for “Juliet, Naked.” Hornby’s books have been adapted into the commercial and critical successes “High Fidelity,” “Fever Pitch” and “About a Boy.” (He also works as a screenwriter, where he always does a terrific job adapting other people’s books: “An Education,” “Wild,” “Brooklyn.”)
“Juliet, Naked” is the story of Annie, a British woman in her late 30s whose longtime boyfriend, Duncan, is one of the leaders of a somewhat motley online community of music lovers and nutcases that has grown up around the slim but influential output of one Tucker Crowe, a singer-songwriter who made a masterpiece about a love affair gone wrong, “Juliet,” and then abruptly abandoned his career and went into hiding.
Duncan receives an advance copy of the soon to be released acoustic demos of the “Juliet” album (hence “Juliet, Naked”) — and undoubtedly driven to exaggeration by the fact that he’s the first to get the album, writes an over-the-top rave that declares the “Naked” version to be far superior to the original. Annie, who likes the original “Juliet,” disagrees and writes a pan of the album for the same website, prompting an out-of-the-blue email from Tucker himself, who agrees with her assessment. A handful of moments that could feel like rom-com cliches follow, but Peretz, the cast and writers Jim Taylor, Tamara Jenkins and Evgenia Peretz have a light and lively touch with the material.
And with the help of new songs from Robyn Hitchcock, Conor Oberst and Nathan Larson, the filmmakers have also managed to turn Hawke into a convincing rock star — or, at least, the shell of a rock star who abandoned the music and now sighs, “One of the big problems of screwing up the first half of your life is you can’t push reset.”
Like “High Fidelity,” “Juliet, Naked” lives in one of Hornby’s sweet spots. Few writers are as adept at conveying the ways music works in the lives of real people — casual listeners, devoted fans and crazed devotees obsessed with minutiae, Top 5 lists and frighteningly deep analysis.
(And if you want a terrific book about how music works in Hornby’s life, check out “Songbook,” one of the best books ever at capturing the various passions that can be aroused by the right sequence of notes.)
The “Juliet, Naked” novel is one of Hornby’s finest, is at its best in capturing the feel of fandom turned to obsession. But it’s also adept at creating the world of the fading seaside town where Annie lives, and where the highlight of the summer is going to be a museum exhibit devoted to the summer of 1964, when things were actually happening in the town. (The things in question are a Rolling Stones concert and a dead shark washing up on the beach.)
The film’s focus shifts from Annie to Duncan to Tucker, but inevitably the three wind up together, with one clear highlight being the first meeting between Tucker and Duncan, who thinks he’s being punked. Another gem comes in a dinner table argument where Duncan sings the praises of the original “Juliet” album. Tucker snaps, “It’s not worth the effort!” and Duncan answers with a soft, wounded, “It is to me.”
In that moment, O’Dowd shrugs off any notion of Duncan being an object of derision, because the poor guy is right: If popular art moves a listener or a viewer, it has achieved something significant, regardless of how the artist might feel about it.
This connection between art and fan has been one of Hornby’s primary subjects for his entire career, and “Juliet, Naked” nails it. It was clear from the ovation at the end of the Eccles screening that the film achieves that connection, too.
There will be bolder films screening at the festival, but the pleasures of “Juliet” are real, and they are substantial.