click to enlarge chris_o_dowd-juliet_naked-photo_courtesy_lionsgate_and_roadside_attractions.jpg

Juliet, Naked mixes contrived comedy with poignant drama 

Let it be

How would you feel if your girlfriend said she hated your favorite singer? Further, what would you do if she started dating him?

Those are just two of the questions posed by the new romantic dramedy Juliet, Naked. Annie (Rose Byrne) and Duncan (Chris O'Dowd) are a couple living an unfulfilled existence in a small seaside village in England. Though they both dabble in history – she as the curator of a museum and he as a teacher of television and media studies – they are ill matched, as evidenced by the opposite ways they approach their shared cultural interests. While Annie takes joy in the intimate, undiscovered stories of the past, Duncan obsesses over a single musician: American alternative rocker Tucker Crowe (Ethan Hawke).

Duncan's fixation is even less logical considering Tucker vanished in 1993 after releasing his final album, Juliet. So Duncan and his online fanboy friends have had little to do for the past two decades but worship their idol's limited music library and posit preposterous theories regarding his whereabouts and what-up-tos.

A clue to those W's arrives unexpectedly one day by mail. Knowing Duncan's love for Tucker, someone has shipped Duncan a heretofore unreleased version of Juliet titled – you guessed it – Juliet, Naked. So just like Beatles fans fawned over Let It Be Naked back in 2003, Duncan is taken to new heights of hero adulation upon hearing Tucker's first "new" music in a generation.

"All along, he's been in love with another man," Annie realizes about Duncan. The two break up, but not before Annie posts a comment critical of the album on the web forum that Duncan hosts. To add contrived insult to believable injury, it's not Duncan who responds to the message – it's Tucker. Turns out the singer is alive after all, eking out an existence in upstate New York, where he ignores his dead career and barely keeps in touch with his far-flung children from various relationships. Oddly, and despite an ocean separating them literally and metaphorically, Tucker and Annie strike up an online friendship.

"There's good naked and bad naked," Jerry Seinfeld once reminded us. Juliet, Naked is both. The film by director Jesse Peretz (Our Idiot Brother, Nurse Jackie) is good when it turns to drama, offering up poignant commentary on celebrity reverence courtesy of a strong performance by O'Dowd. It's similarly good when it lets Hawke examine a life loaded with selfish decisions and wasted opportunities. But it's bad when it surrounds lovable but overloaded Byrne with an uneven plot and the tropes of romantic comedy.

Based on the 2009 novel by Nick Hornby, Juliet, Naked is often thoughtful, sweet and complicated. But – illustrating the difficulties of adapting a book to the screen – its second act is logically and structurally unsound, unfunny, poorly paced and packed with characters we care little about. Nevertheless, the lead actors enjoy good chemistry, and the third act turns enjoyably existential when it addresses both the safety and danger of living a life free of risk. (And a wonderfully funny turn by English actor-director Phil Davis, as the town's mayor, helps right the comedic ship.)

Despite its title, the movie rarely strips its characters bare. Its most revealing moment is when Duncan learns what Tucker thinks of his obsession. That awkward revelation is akin to William Shatner telling Star Trek fans on Saturday Night Live to "get a life" – except this moment is played rather seriously. It briefly allows the film, which never hits its stride as a comedy, to find its groove as a drama.

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