Directed by Stephen Frears Written by D.V. Devincentis, Steve Pink, Scott Rosenberg and John Cusack, based on the novel by Nick Hornby Starring John Cusack, Iben Hjejle, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Tim Robbins Classification: N/A Rating: ***
Deep, it's not, but in its own casual way, High Fidelity is a funny, perceptive movie about pop music, a man's confused passions for records and women, and the lure of perpetual teenagehood. Based on Nick Hornby's sharply observed English novel, the story has been transplanted to Chicago to accommodate the talents of producer/co-writer and star John Cusack. He plays a thirty-plus adolescent named Rob Gordon, who has measured out his life in pop singles.
The movie begins with Rob, in the first of many voice-overs, asking the musical question: Do pop songs make us miserable, or are we miserable because we listen to pop songs? (The technical answer, as a radio consultant once told me, is that "pop music represents experiences of shared loneliness.") For a living, Rob runs a snobby, if unsuccessful record store called Championship Vinyl, where fellow record geeks make pilgrimages to find lost Smiths singles or original, not re-released, Frank Zappa records.
His staff consists of two hired part-time, but working full-time, employees, the thin, balding, querulous Dick (Todd Louiso) and the belligerant rotund Barry (Jack Black), who prefers insulting customers' bad taste to actually selling them product. To while away the hours between shoppers, they engage in the arcane games of the musically besotted: Endless "top 10" lists to cover every aspect of life from romantic breakups to death, best first-cuts-off-first-albums, desert island all-time faves and the deep significance of giving a girl a favourite compilation tape.
The music, of course, is the celebration of -- or perhaps the replacement for, that elusive figure known as The Girl. Alone among the record-store employees, Rob has actually met some of these exotic creatures. Indeed, as the movie starts, he has just been dumped by the latest, the wan blonde, Laura (Danish actress Iben Hjejle, currently in theatres in Mifune). At home in his apartment, surrounded by discs lovingly preserved in plastic wrapping (his records are organized "autobiographically"), he submerges under the headphones, and contemplates his top five all-time worst break-ups.
In a plot turn reminiscent of director Joan Tewkesbury's Old Boyfriends, he decides he has to visit each of them in turn and discover the flaw in his character that makes him the perennial dumpee. The journey proves enlightening, both in terms of insight and of his emotional burden. As it turns out, Rob's remembered version of events was often wrong. Either he actually instigated the breakup or, in retrospect, was lucky to get out of the relationship in one piece.
The funniest of these is the girl Charlie (Catherine Zeta-Jones), who, Rob concluded, was way out of his league. In practice, he discovers that beyond the delectable surface beauty, she's a spectacular bore. The dullest is a fling with a pop singer named Marie De Salle (a listless Lisa Bonet), who has turned to singing Peter Frampton (of all things).
English director Stephen Frears has been on a fairly steady descent since his career high of My Beautiful Laundrette and The Grifters, but he stages -- if not exactly a comeback -- at least some flashes of his old ingenuity: Bruce Springsteen pops up, à la Humphrey Bogart in Play It Again Sam, to offer Rob a few existential tips. There's a smart wish-fulfillment dream in which Rob imagines his confrontation with Laura's new boyfriend, a middle-aged pony-tailed drip (played with smothering condescension by Tim Robbins).
But the ticket to High Fidelity's pleasures is found in the synchronicity of Cusack's performance and Hornby's writing. Nearly all the best lines are lifted directly from Hornby's book, though, at risk of speaking heresy to the legions of worshippers of Hornby's novel, the movie benefits considerably by featuring its American star. Ever since Four Weddings and A Funeral, we've been subjected to a surfeit of sweet and bumbling Englishmen in romantic comedies. Cusack, whatever else he is, is never sweet. His arch, knowing edge is always just under the surface. The audacious conman is always present in his roles; the difference with High Fidelity is, this time he's conning himself.