Here comes Ethan Hawke again, who has occasionally wandered off our radar over the decades but always seems to find a way to remind of us he’s one of the most natural and actually one of the more versatile film actors of his generation.
Earlier this year, Hawke turned in a powerful, searing, nomination-worthy performance as a deeply conflicted priest in Paul Schrader’s stunning and harsh and brilliant “First Reformed.”
Now, with the light and breezy pop music confection “Juliet, Naked,” Hawke slips ever so comfortably into a persona he’s owned over the years: the smart and charming but sometimes infuriatingly irresponsible free spirit who at any given moment has probably ticked off someone in his life while working his magic on someone else he’s just met.
In director Jesse Peretz’ “Juliet, Naked,” Hawke plays an all-but-forgotten singer-songwriter named Tucker Crowe, who garnered rave reviews and modestly successful commercial success with one album (titled simply, “Juliet”) in the early 1990s — and then, halfway through a gig at a Minneapolis club called The Pit, suddenly and mysteriously vanished.
I say “all but forgotten,” because the legend lives on for the small circle of a few hundred loyal, some might even say obsessed fans who flock to a website devoted to all things Tucker Crowe.
The very funny Chris O’Dowd is perfectly cast as the blogger behind the Tucker Crowe fan site: Duncan, a 40ish academic at a middling university in Sandcliff, an English coastal town that has seen better days but is cheerily populated with amiable eccentrics one often sees in towns of this sort in movies of this sort.
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It’s a toss-up as to what Duncan loves more: the music of Tucker Crowe, or the sound of his own voice, whether he’s calling Tucker the most underappreciated figure in the history of rock ‘n’ roll, or teaching classes dissecting “The Wire” and the role of the Alienated Male in Modern American Cinema.
Coming in a distant third on the Priority List is Duncan’s live-in girlfriend of the last 15 years, Annie (Rose Byrne). And that makes Duncan quite the idiot, because Annie is lovely and sweet and has a quiet but wicked sense of humor, and Duncan needs to take off the headphones and put away the laptop and thank his lucky stars for Annie.
When someone sends Duncan a CD titled “Juliet, Naked,” a heretofore undiscovered demo of unfinished versions of the songs that would eventually appear on “Juliet,” it sets off a chain of developments that lead to Annie (who’s never even been that much of fan) connecting via email and eventually in person with none other than the real Tucker Crowe.
Turns out the infamous rocker has been living in obscurity (and without much direction) in the garage behind the house occupied by his ex-wife, while trying to be a good parent to their 6-year-old son Jackson (Azhy Robertson).
Oh, and there’s more than one ex, and more than one child. Tucker has spent much of the last quarter-century abusing substances, messing up romantic relationships and being an absentee father to multiple children. But now he’s trying, he’s sincerely trying, to hit the Reset button.
Wow, just think how excited Duncan would be to learn his idol is alive and well — and has struck up a friendship with Annie, of all people! What a shame this cad has been carrying on with a new teacher at the university, and has dumped Annie. Imagine how fantastically awkward and hilarious it will be when Tucker visits Annie in England as they explore the possibility of a romantic connection, and Duncan runs into them, and has to process the sight of his idol and his ex hanging out at the beach.
“Juliet, Naked” is based on a novel by one of my favorite modern writers, Nick Hornby, whose adaptation-friendly work has served as the launching point for “High Fidelity,” “About a Boy” and two versions of “Fever Pitch.” Screenwriters Evgenia Peretz, Jim Taylor and Tamara Jenkins have done a great job of capturing Hornby’s natural ear for dialogue and romantic-comedic situations.
We started this conversation by talking about Ethan Hawke’s career and his fine work in this film, but one of the neat things about “Juliet, Naked” is how we realize early on that this isn’t Tucker’s story and it isn’t Duncan’s story — it’s Annie’s story, as well it should be. Annie might not be the most colorful or the most problematic character in the story, but SHE’S the one who deserves the happy ending.
And like Ethan Hawke, Rose Byrne is an actor who can do just about anything when given the opportunity.
Roadside Attractions and Lionsgate present a film directed by Jesse Peretz and written by Evgenia Peretz, Jim Taylor and Tamara Jenkins, based on the novel by Nick Hornby. Rated R (for language). Running time: 98 minutes. Opens Friday at local theaters.