To the well-worn adage “Never meet your heroes,” “Juliet, Naked” adds the corollary “Never let your heroes meet your girlfriend.”
The movie, an easygoing romantic comedy with no business being as charming as it is, comes to us via a Nick Hornby novel and director Jesse Peretz (“Our Idiot Brother,” many episodes of HBO’s “Girls”). The cast — Rose Byrne, Ethan Hawke, comic sad sack Chris O’Dowd (“Bridesmaids,” “The Sapphires”) — is in a higher weight class than the material and, rather than be dragged down into formula, they raise the movie up to the nearly scintillating.
Plus, it’s got a hell of a hook. Annie (Byrne) lives and simmers with dissatisfaction in a coastal British backwater, where she runs her late father’s dusty historical museum and rues the day she met live-in boyfriend Duncan (O’Dowd), an overbearing academic with a decades-long crush on weedy ’90s alt-rocker Tucker Crowe. Crowe released one album and promptly dropped from sight, and Duncan feeds on that legend, maintaining a dedicated fan site read by “200 middle-aged men” (Annie’s words).
Tired of sharing her relationship with a theoretical third party, Annie pens and posts a poisonous review of some newly discovered Tucker Crowe demos and is shocked to receive an e-mail from Tucker Crowe himself (Ethan Hawke), enthusiastically agreeing with her. And here’s where “Juliet, Naked” — which is also the name of those demo tapes — becomes more cozy but more interesting.
An epistolary e-friendship evolves between the two, which starts drifting dangerously toward romance. Dangerous not because the self-absorbed Duncan is worth keeping — O’Dowd gives his usual mopey nice guy some brutal mansplaining tendencies — but because Crowe isn’t much of a catch, either. No, he’s not a bearded sheep farmer or has shacked up writing songs with Beyoncé, as online rumors have it. Instead, he’s more realistically human and sad and complicated, not least because he seems to have lost track of how many children he’s had. (The main one we meet, a grade-schooler played by Azhy Robertson, fulfills the movie’s designated precocious kid slot without getting too cutesy.)
So you have to swallow a lot to buy into “Juliet, Naked” — including the preposterous notion that anyone could ignore Rose Byrne — but the direction and the playing turn it into comfort food. And the movie serves as the latest curve in Ethan Hawke’s increasingly impressive career. The actor has always come across as the earnest alt-rocker of his own acting generation, writing novels and directing turgid dramas of musicians and drifters while furrowing his brow through Richard Linkater’s multi-decade “Before Sunrise” saga.
Lately, though, Hawke has shown signs of self-aware humor — “Juliet, Naked” being Exhibit A — while realizing his more serious impulses with less pomp and more artfulness. His performance as a reverend reeling from loss of faith in Paul Schrader’s “First Reformed” is one of his finest; the upcoming “Blaze,” in which director Hawke tells the story of Austin, Texas, music icon Blaze Foley, is touching and true. He just gave an interview in Film Stage in which he graciously put the entire comic-book wing of American cinema in its proper place.
And in this winsome romance, Hawke lets himself be part of a gangly, engaging ensemble in much the manner that Tucker Crowe has learned the hard way to clamber back into the human race. In this and more, “Juliet, Naked” is a small victory, but a real one.
Directed by Jesse Peretz. Written by Evgenia Peretz, Tamara Jenkins, and Jim Taylor, based on the novel by Nick Hornby. Starring Rose Byrne, Ethan Hawke, Chris O’Dowd. At Boston Common, ShowPlace Icon Seaport, Kendall Square, Coolidge Corner, West Newton. 98 minutes. R (language).