Director Jesse Peretz’s Juliet, Naked opens with a video recording of Duncan (Chris O’Dowd), a middle-aged professor of media studies, waxing rhapsodic over the brilliance of the short-lived musical career of singer-songwriter Tucker Crowe (Ethan Hawke). Although Crowe mysteriously dropped off the grid 25 years ago following the release of his final album, Juliet, Duncan still dutifully maintains a fan page where a small group of men gather daily to deconstruct Crowe’s lyrics and postulate outlandish theories about what the reclusive musician has been up to in the intervening decades.
Not everyone, though, including Duncan’s girlfriend, Annie (Rose Byrne), is clamoring for the return of the great Tucker Crowe. Of course, that only strengthens Duncan’s conviction to preserve the legacy of his hero, even if it means inflicting his obsession on nearly everyone he meets. But just as it really digs into the unbridled passion of niche fandom and its effects on interpersonal relationships, the film performs a strange about-face, all but abandoning Duncan for long stretches of time. After trolling her self-absorbed, snobbish husband by posting a vitriolic review of Juliet‘s recently surfaced acoustic demos (titled, of course, Juliet, Naked), Annie begins a lengthy online communication with Tucker after receiving an email from him telling her she was spot-on about the unearthed recordings being garbage.
Never mind the reasons why a musician out of the spotlight for so long would be carefully reading sparsely populated message boards to see what his few remaining fans are still writing about him. This is a rom-com, so, naturally, Annie and Tucker are inextricably drawn to one another. Conveniently, Duncan cheats on Annie with someone who appreciates Tucker’s newly discovered music, which clears the way for Annie to run off without guilt or complication. And as Duncan fades to the background, Peretz begins to clumsily vacillate between Tucker seeking to be redeemed in the eyes of his children, whom he’s neglected over the years, and Annie grappling with her identity after breaking up with Duncan, who she had been with since she was a teenager.
Juliet, Naked flagrantly stacks the deck in Tucker’s favor, never truly delving into how his past actions caused so much pain to his ex-girlfriend (Megan Dodds) and children, almost going so far as expecting us to feel compassion for him once he tries to turn his life around. The remainder of the film is as spotty as Tucker’s checkered past, loaded with inconsequential detours and questionable and inconsistent character psychology as it stumbles awkwardly to its foregone conclusion. And in its divergent attempts to examine the perils of toxic, overindulgent fandom, the difficulties of facing up to past mistakes and regrets, and the challenge of discovering your own needs and desires once you’ve separated from a longtime partner, Juliet, Naked ultimately remains too scattershot to say much about any of them.