“Juliet, Naked,” the latest effort from producer Judd Apatow (“The Big Sick”) and director Jesse Peretz (“Our Idiot Brother”), isn’t nearly a failure because of what the movie does, but because of what it doesn’t do. With a great pedigree — Apatow, original book by Nick Hornby and screenplay by masters Tamara Jenkins (“The Savages”), Phil Alden Robinson (“Field of Dreams”) and Jim Taylor (“Sideways”) — it’s a disappointment that “Juliet, Naked” falls as flat as it does.
Annie (Rose Byrne, “Spy”) is angered by her long-term boyfriend’s obsession with American rocker Tucker Crowe (Ethan Hawke, “Maudie”). Tucker, with the melancholy of Elliott Smith and the sort of broken timbre of Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, is all Duncan (Chris O’Dowd, “Loving Vincent”) can talk about. He has a room — nay, a shrine — devoted to his collection of Crowe memorabilia, and runs a website dedicated to curating his fandom through his investigative stitching of Tucker’s life. Duncan hides away in his lair after he discovers a disc of demos previously thought to never exist. This draws Annie to a breaking point, and she does the unthinkable, leaving a scathing comment on his review tearing her boyfriend to pieces. Crowe, miraculously, reads the comment, and in his nigh depressed state, writes to her that she was dead on in her criticism. They develop an online romance until Crowe comes to London after his daughter goes into labor.
For a movie that tries to examine the parameters of relationships — parent-child, partner-partner, artist-fan, sister-sister — “Juliet, Naked” surprisingly finds its strength in its individuals, and decidedly not in the interplay and exchanges between a pair. While Byrne, wresting the leading role from O’Dowd, and Hawke, endearing in his own way, bring vibrancy to their respective roles, their chemistry never feels quite truthful. It’s not that they’re acting in two separate movies; it’s that, in relying on the plot alone to forge their connection, they neglected to do it themselves.
The same can be said about the relationship between Byrne and O’Dowd, the central focus of the film in its first half. Annie and Duncan have been partners for a long time, enough to have discussed children, but they can hardly stand one another. There’s a lack of genuine love and care for one another that makes the pairing seem like a doomed relationship, even considering the external tension between the two on Tucker Crowe’s musical ability. The film just never quite makes a convincing case that we should care.
Ultimately, “Juliet, Naked” tries to do too much in too little time. Rather than luxuriate in the ideas it sets out to discuss, like celebrity, spousal infidelity and parenthood, Peretz’s film splashes water before getting out of the shallow end. On top of the trite and overdone film sequences, the lack of focus makes almost every emotional beat a miss. The film is occasionally funny, especially in scenes that involve Annie’s flamboyantly flirtatious sister Rose (Lily Brazier, “People Just Do Nothing”) or the screwball madness between Crowe, Duncan and Annie. Sadly, only a few punch lines land. When the lucky few do, they reveal the dearth of humor in the film.