There’s a low-key charm to “Juliet, Naked,” a feeling that everyone making it was in a good mood and wanted the same for the rest of us. It’s an adaptation of a novel by Nick Hornby, who gave us the divine "Brooklyn," “High Fidelity” and “About a Boy.” It offers the same combination of dyspeptic humor and regret that men will never love women quite as much as they love their obsessive hobbies. Some sort of marriage breakdown is always around the corner in Hornby World, but there’s always championship football for him and a new lad for her, so let’s keep things in proportion.
In “Juliet, Naked,” we revisit those themes in the form of an adult romantic triangle. In a quaint little coastal town on the English Channel, we meet Duncan (Chris O’Dowd), a professor of television studies at the local college, where he hands out his learned brochures on slang terms used in “The Wire.”
For more than two decades he has held a fixation on former rock star Tucker Crowe, who hasn’t released an album since the heyday of vinyl and might be dead. Duncan compulsively scours the internet in search of trivia about his idol, and studies the lyrics on Crowe’s one released album, “Juliet,” like a Rosetta Stone. He connects with Crowe’s small band of online fans to share his conjectures about its hidden meanings. He is, as they say there, as daft as a brush with no bristles.
Annie (Rose Byrne), the aging fanboy’s sweet girlfriend, accepts his eccentricity in a bored, long-suffering way. She has her own niche, managing the town’s seaside museum, preserving its not-so-rich heritage of nautical knickknacks. They both put up with being sick to death of each other in a somewhat good-hearted way, as people do.
Duncan is in a tizzy when another recording by Crowe is discovered. It’s a demo tape for “Juliet” called “Juliet, Naked,” and Duncan considers it an even weightier achievement. Annie thinks it’s rubbish, the sort of disagreement that leads Duncan to sigh, “Everyone’s entitled to their opinion, however un-nuanced.” She quietly goes on his Crowe fan site and states her piece, receiving a reply from someone who agrees that it stinks: Tucker Crowe himself, played by Ethan Hawke.
Living in the United States on a trickle of royalties for his small body of work, Crowe is a deadbeat dad to several kids, romantically down on his luck and willing to end his long silence to connect with someone who finally gets it about his inconsequential achievements. He and Annie begin a secret online correspondence, and Act Two has Duncan more than a little flabbergasted and chagrined to see his idol in his hometown, visiting his partner with a rather amorous attitude.
The film ambles on from there, giving everyone’s bewildering circumstances a good third degree. Annie knows that she’s feeling a strong infatuation, but can’t predict what it will become, since Crowe is a deep piece of work in his own way. Duncan tries to hold his vexation rather than lose a chance to bond with the rock ’n’ roll deity he’s been stalking for years. Crowe tries to balance his minor celebrity privilege with not being a total jerk.
There’s a lot to untangle here. There’s the awkward jealousy of losing a man crush to your girlfriend, trying to decode the various resentful past wives and neglected children of someone who’s out to win your heart, plus scraping the rust off a 50-year-old soul and putting yourself back in the love race. We go from hospital visits that are dramatic and silly to Hawke nervously performing a Kinks song in public after wrongly being introduced as a Grammy-winning legend.
O’Dowd manages the difficult trick of being insufferably obnoxious and nonstop funny. Byrne is inherently too lovely, clever and witty to play a character without many romantic options, but under the circumstances, I’ll accept it. Having recently seen Hawke set the screen on fire dramatically in “First Reformed,” this feels like lightweight work, but he handles it well, creating a tug of war between Crowe’s cult hero advantages and his neuroses. For all of that, plus the weirdest meet-cute in movie history, the film’s shortcomings in length and pacing are officially forgiven.