Nick Hornby is nothing if not consistent. When it comes to novels about dysfunctional, obsessive, middle-aged man-children struggling to reconcile their peculiar fixations with living a semi-normal life, Hornby has cornered the market.
It all started with 1992's autobiographical Fever Pitch, which detailed the author's own life distilled through the lens of his fanatical Arsenal FC fandom. That book sold over a million copies and was adapted into a movie starring Colin Firth in 1997. The film also had a baseball-themed 2005 American version.
Having presumably sensed a winning formula, the author tweaked his method for follow- up High Fidelity in 1995. By sidestepping the football obsession as the book's central theme, Hornby removed the potential tribalism of Fever Pitch's approach (how many Spurs fans would have bought the 1992 book about their mortal enemies?) He substituted the obsession with music in High Fidelity, and opened up the novel to a much wider audience, both in Europe and football-phobic North America. That book also sold by the million, and was adapted into a successful movie starring John Cusack in 2000.
About a Boy, which published in 1998, was adapted into a Hugh Grant-starrer in 2002, riffed on a similar theme, as have all of the writer's novels since, and 2009's Juliet, Naked is the latest to get the big screen treatment, with Chris O'Dowd, Rose Byrne and Ethan Hawke taking the lead roles.
Duncan (O'Dowd) is a geek. He's obsessed with popular culture, to the degree that every day of his life is taken up teaching film and TV studies at his local college. His obsession with movies, however, is nothing compared to his obsession with obscure alt-rocker Tucker Crowe (Hawke), who mysteriously disappeared mid-gig 25 years ago after releasing just one album, Juliet, and has never been heard of since. Duncan has converted an entire room of the house he shares with girlfriend Annie (Byrne) into a shrine to Crowe, listens to his album and live recordings obsessively, and runs a fan site dedicated to his idol.
Needless to say, after 15 years Annie is a bit tired of all this, and is getting ready to face middle age head on, have kids and grow up. When Duncan mysteriously receives a previously unheard CD of demos for Crowe's seminal album (the titular Juliet, Naked), things can only get worse, especially since Annie thinks it's terrible. She even anonymously joins Duncan's fan site to write a scathing review, an act which unexpectedly leads to a developing online correspondence with Crowe himself, who finds his obsessive fan disturbing and appreciates her honesty.
While Annie’s online relationship with Crowe develops, eventually leading to a real life meeting, Duncan is himself busy embarking on an affair with another teacher from work, who shares his opinions on the genius of the demos.
It's a decent, if unlikely premise, but Jesse Peretz's film still falls somewhat flat. There are a couple of notable comic high points, such as the scene in which a hospital-bound Tucker is confronted by a succession of exes and estranged children more concerned about bickering than the washed-up star's heart attack, but the movie is more a series of polite chuckles than belly laughs. O'Dowd is great in sitcoms like The IT Crowd, but he seems to lack the force of personality to carry a full-length movie, and the chemistry between him and Byrne is non-existent. Granted, the pair are already on the verge of splitting when the movie starts, but it's hard to imagine how the pair ever managed 15 years together with this lack of spark. Hawke, meanwhile, delivers a passable performance, but he's essentially rehashing his deadbeat-rock-dad role from Richard Linklater's far superior Boyhood.
The plot arc is utterly predictable too. Will Annie and Tucker end up together? Will the has-been rock idol finally release a new album invigorated by his interaction with his new muse? Will Duncan realise the error of his ways and attempt reconciliation with Annie? We’ll leave you to find out for yourself, but don’t expect too many surprises.
Juliet, Naked is out in UAE cinemas from Thursday September 13