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‘Juliet, Naked’ an uplifting romantic comedy about second chances, hope

“Juliet, Naked” is a charming and smart little film about early middle age, second chances, regrets and the intoxicating freedom of written correspondence that’s nearly impossible to explain without either spoiling something or being willfully misleading.

That’s actually one of its attributes: Everything makes sense only in context of everything else. “Juliet, Naked” has a plot that not only builds but that keeps getting more interesting and more rewarding, which is a good thing, because to hear this film described is a tedious and confusing exercise. Woman starts romance with elusive indie rocker who is also boyfriend’s obsession? What?

Rose Byrne and Chris O’Dowd in a scene from “Juliet, Naked.” (SOURCE: Lionsgate And Roadside Attractions)

Because, ultimately, “Juliet, Naked,” adapted from a Nick Hornby novel and directed by Jesse Peretz, is not really about the romance or the rocker or the lousy boyfriend. It’s about a woman, trapped in stagnation, learning what she wants. (No wonder this Sundance gem is hovering just over “fresh” on Rotten Tomatoes.)

Rose Byrne plays Annie, who lives a perfectly ordinary life in an English coastal town. She works for a tiny local museum that her father once ran, she spends time with her sister, and she tolerates her man-child boyfriend, an academic named Duncan (perfectly rendered by Chris O’Dowd). Duncan runs a fan blog devoted to Tucker Crowe (Ethan Hawke), a fictional cultish figure from the ’90s indie rock scene who made a seminal album, “Juliet,” but vanished in between sets at the height of his fame and hasn’t been heard from for 25 years.

Annie is dutifully supportive of this obsession, until one day a disc arrives in the mail, “Juliet, Naked,” a compilation of early demos that no one has heard. Duncan thinks it’s genius but Annie dissents, countering that unfinished works of art are just that – unfinished – and not meant to be heard, even posting a lengthy comment on the blog.

This infuriates Duncan, whom you could imagine breaking up with her because of a difference of opinion, but manages to get the attention of someone else – Tucker Crowe. He emails Annie to tell her she got it right, which kicks off a wonderful little trans-Atlantic correspondence between two people who couldn’t have conducted themselves more differently in their youth, but have found themselves in a similar spot nonetheless. I’m not even sure it’s accurately categorized as a romance – more so the heady excitement of actually connecting with another person over something honest, like regrets, both of whom have many.

Annie regrets caring to the point of paralysis (“I keep thinking at some point there will be a reward for being so sensible,” she says). Tucker regrets not caring enough. Not only was he a prolific partier, but he also managed to father a fair number of children, with a fair number of women, all of whom are equally and rightfully angry at their mostly absentee father.

Hawke is brilliant as this affable screw-up, who is haunted by his past, resents the music that made him famous, and is trying his best to redeem himself with his kids, to varying degrees of success. He’s the rare actor who has fully embraced his own middle age and isn’t clinging on to some notion of youth or late-in-life action stardom, and the result is that he’s telling deeply interesting stories about a certain stage of life without vanity or pretention.

But although he is an essential component, it is really Byrne’s movie, and she gives a winning performance as a woman you believe has never even been asked what she wants out of life. A lesser script or actress or filmmaker might have made Annie a pathetic sad sack, but Byrne knows that being stuck is not the same as being hopeless, and her Annie is full of life and grace and empathy.

The film buzzes along with introspective conversations, all-too human moments, a terrific soundtrack with everyone from Marianne Faithfull to the Pretenders, and a few delightfully awkward scenes that really drive home the whole “don’t meet your idols” conceit. And definitely don’t idol-splain to them if you do.

3 stars