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High Fidelity

Review by Gregory Avery
Posted 31 March 2000

Directed by Stephen Frears.

Starring John Cusack, 
Iben Hjejle, Jack Black, 
Todd Louiso, Joelle Carter, 
Catherine Zeta-Jones, Lili Taylor, 
Lisa Bonet, Sara Gilbert, 
Natasha Gregson Wagner, 
Joan Cusack and Tim Robbins.

Written by D.V. DeVincentis, 
Steve Pink, John Cusack and Scott Rosenberg, 
based on the novel by Nick Hornby. 

First, let's cut to the chase: High Fidelity, the new film starring John Cusack, is wonderfully entertaining, has some great music, and has a beat. What more could you ask for?

Now for the details: Cusack plays Rob, a vinyl-holdout who lives in his Chicago apartment surrounded by banks of carefully-stored L.P.'s He can not only recall when he bought them, but where and, depending on the album, why. At the record store he owns, "Championship Vinyl" (the "h" has dropped out of the sign, so that it reads "CHAMPIONS IP VINYL"), he comes up with Top Five Lists -- such as, Top Five All-Time Killer Opening Album Tracks -- with the two employees who, Rob informs us, were hired to work three days a week but just started coming in every day. The two guys seem to be polar opposites, but they get along. Dick (Todd Louiso) is almost preternaturally shy, but not shy enough to start up a conversation with a girl (Sara Gilbert), over which bands influenced Green Day, that leads to a relationship. The punchy, more aggressive Barry (Jack Black), on the other hand, has no qualms about expressing his likes and dislikes, and even drives customers out of the store if they come in asking for what he considers to be the wrong record. The store is located -- "strategically," Rob adds -- so that they get a "dedicated" clientele.

As the film opens, Rob is in a funk, composing and going over his Top Five All-Time Greatest Breakups. There was the girl whom he caught kissing another boy at school. The girl in college who would never let him get past second or third base with her. The girl who was a Total Babe (and is played by Catherine Zeta-Jones), so, therefore, her interest in him was bound not to last. A girl (the indispensable Lili Taylor) whom he met and started seeing for all the wrong reasons (so they were bound to fail, too). His Number Three choice is dispensed with rather quickly (but gone into more deeply in the novel the film's based on). And now his current girlfriend, Laura (Danish actress Iben Hjejle, who can also currently be seen in Mifune), who abruptly breaks things off with him, starting with her yanking Rob's earphone jack out of his stereo. Rob looks back at each of these relationships in turn and tries to figure out why he could not make any of these women happy. When that fails, he even starts contacting them, and begins grasping desperately to any shred of evidence that proves that the relationships failed for other reasons: it wasn't his fault, after all.

This all does not turn into just some story about some guy amusing himself by thumbing through his old Little Black Book, found in the back of a desk drawer. What emerges is something considerably more, that Rob is caught in a Moebius strip of conceptual failure. That whenever he feels happy or contented, something is bound to be lurking around the corner or in the shadows that is going to end it all. Rob is always on the move, always active in some way because he can't stand to be confronted with another disappointment, even to the point where he precipitates a disaster. He has the sneaking suspicion that he doesn't deserve lasting happiness.

The thing is, Rob does look like he deserves some lasting happiness. He comes across as bright, witty, funny, observant, but he is on the point of becoming seriously embittered, and one starts to yearn for him to seize an opportunity for contentment when it presents itself and be able to find some stasis in life.

It's about time that somebody began extolling the virtues of John Cusack, so I will take a moment to do so. Cusack has provided many moments of pleasure as a performance for many years, going back to his attention-grabbing performance in The Sure Thing, in 1985. There was his intensely romantic Lloyd in Say Anything..., who, at one point, tells Ione Skye that he's shivering not from cold, but "because I'm happy." There was his flawless portrayal of a Louisiana-born attorney in City Hall, his humanistic F.B.I. agent in Con Air, and the journalist in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil who refuses his editor's request for him to leave Savannah, Georgia and come back to New York City ("It's like Gone With the Wind on acid! New York is boring!"). He fumbled a bit in Woody Allen's Bullets Over Broadway (which was really Dianne Wiest and Jennifer Tilly's show), but for any really bum performance I have to go all the way back to Tapeheads in 1988, where Cusack tried, and failed, to play a sleaze. (He got it right a little bit later, though, in the 1991 political drama True Colors.)

In High Fidelity, Cusack, working once again with Stephen Frears, who directed him in The Grifters, gives a performance that's nothing short of virtuotic, delivering lengthy observations and confidences to the audience that are beautifully shaped. They range from plowing the troughs of despair to jubilation, a savoring of the finer points in life (Rob's list of Top Five Things he most likes, and misses, about Laura), and mortifying moments of self-realization. There are also quiet moments, such as when Rob, standing like a captain on the quarterdeck of his ship behind the record store counter, puts on a new album and watches while the customers around him start to successively pick up on the agreeable sound and beat of the music. Another, when, after putting on a Springsteen album, he seeks for, and gets, advise from the Boss himself (worth having a look at the movie for, alone). And the multiple scenarios that run through Rob's head when he finally meets the man whom Laura has left him for, a specialist in "conflict resolution," played by Tim Robbins, who presses his fingertips together and speaks in a voice of crafted modulation.

Told from Rob's point-of-view, the story, given its subject matter, never lops over into total male fantasy, although at times it seems like it's almost about to. Rob meets, and goes home with, a beautiful local recording artist (played, stunningly, by Lisa Bonet), but the episode has a cunning catch at the end about exactly "who's zooming who," so to speak.

The picture, adapted from Nick Hornby's novel (which was set in London), was co-written, with Scott Rosenberg, by D.V. DeVincentis, Steve Pink, and Cusack, who previously worked on the dazzling, and funny, black comedy Grosse Pointe Blank. There is a sense of a group of artists getting together, here, and, deciding that they want to do something different from anything else out there, sitting down and doing so, only going about it with diligence, ferocious insight, knowing how far to go and when to rein in, and figuring out where the story should go and how to go about attaining a satisfactory conclusion. Cusack, DeVincentis and Pink are also credited as "Music Consultants," meaning that when these guys speak about the Smiths, Sigue Sigue Sputnik, Ryuichi Sakamoto, or the various issuings of Frank Zappa albums, they know of what they speak. (One faux-pas, though: the title track of Springsteen's album The River comes as the end of Side 2, not the beginning. I mention this only because I played this record all the time in college.) The film has an outstanding collection of songs, old and new -- like the compilation tapes that Rob makes on his home stereo. The compilation tape ends up serving as a metaphor for a most exquisite ending, one that represents a moving sea change in Rob's character. By the time High Fidelity reaches its conclusion, the picture ends up coming closest than any made in years to the classic domestic comedy-dramas, such as The Man Who Loved Women and the later Antoine Doinel films, of François Truffaut, in the way it plumbs to the very heart of men's yearning for, and occasional bafflement towards, women, with humor, delicacy and insight.

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