High Fidelity

Nick Hornby’s well-loved novel High Fidelity is set in London, while the film version unfolds in Chicago; other than that, the movie is aptly named — it’s a faithful adaptation right down to the debates about Top Five records. Reading the book, you can envision it without John Cusack; watching the film, you can’t imagine it without him. Cusack meets Hornby’s British self-consciousness with his own American brand, adding his Cusackian knack for romantic yearning. He plays guys that guys see themselves in and that women see their past or possible future boyfriends in, either fondly or hopefully.

Here he’s Rob Gordon, an embittered, thirtysomething owner of a failing record shop. Obsessively cataloguing his vast personal record collection, just as obsessively chewing over his past botched relationships, Rob is a descendant of the Daniel Stern character in Diner, who freaked out when his wife shelved his singles out of order. Rob is a big believer in pop music as both the soundtrack for love and the influence on notions of love, and the film’s selection of tunes — mostly beautifully morose songs — bears him out; even the uptempo numbers have names like “You’re Gonna Miss Me” and “Cold Blooded Old Times.”

Rob has just been dumped by longtime girlfriend Laura (Iben Hjejle), a lawyer who’s grown past him and is tired of waiting for him to catch up. Rob seems to have a better rapport (though often hostile) with his cronies at the shop, the effusive Barry (Jack Black) and the recessive Dick (Todd Louiso), both music geeks who seem to represent two extremes that Rob falls in the middle of. He’s not quite as hardcore about music as they are; he’s slowly growing out of it, but towards what, he’s not sure yet. Still, he knows his tunes, as seen in one of many memorable scenes, when Rob spins a Beta Band disc in the shop and waits for the music to lure buyers.

While Rob tries haplessly to recapture Laura’s heart — part of which involves distracting her from pompous new flame Ian (old Cusack buddy Tim Robbins in a hilariously insufferable performance) — Rob flashes back on his past disasters, talking directly to us, as if we were friends sitting in on his anguish; this gives the movie a slightly voyeuristic feel. Stephen Frears, who also directed Cusack in The Grifters ten years ago (impossible to think that hard-bitten noir came right on the heels of the gentle Say Anything), expertly creates Rob’s cluttered milieu, a place where clarity gets lost in the nooks and crannies of disorganized apartments.

Cusack adapted the book with help from friends D.V. DeVincentis and Steve Pink, as well as Scott Rosenberg. Though I’m not sure why it took four guys to transcribe a script almost verbatim from the novel, it’s nice to see the three musketeers Cusack, DeVincentis, and Pink together again after their 1997 triumph Grosse Pointe Blank. Their new film has a radically different tone and rhythm — it lacks GPB‘s dark edge, New Wave pulse, and rapid-fire exchange of quirky dialogue (“I’ll go put these in some rubbing alcohol,” said Minnie Driver when given flowers) — but it’s just as organically a Cusack film, with an accumulating gallery of pleasures.

Not to mention a rogue’s gallery of bright supporting performances. Jack Black, of HBO’s satirical show Tenacious D, grabs the movie as soon as he walks through the door; onscreen with the manic-depressive Cusack and the stammering Todd Louiso, he has more than enough wall space to bounce his noisy tirades off of. It must be said, also, that Rob has terrific taste in ex-girlfriends, who include Catherine Zeta-Jones and Lili Taylor, both of whom make more vivid impressions in a minimum of screen time here than in the sad entirety of The Haunting. Unfortunately, Rob’s early rapport with Laura (though she’s smartly played by Iben Hjejle) is mainly hearsay; since most of the movie is post-breakup, we seldom see them enjoying each other’s rhythms, the way Cusack and Minnie Driver (or for that matter, Cusack and Ione Skye) did.

Rob’s connection with singer Marie de Salle (Lisa Bonet, giving a self-absorbed performance as a self-absorbed woman) is hardly better. Cusack and company have dropped the book’s denouement in which Marie performs at the record shop, and they were right to — it would have come off cheesy in a film. Still, it renders her character a little pointless. But it doesn’t seem to matter much: the movie is more about the longing for love than about actual relationships. At times, Rob seems to take a page from Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park: he’s looking for the next ex-girlfriend.

Cusack makes movies for and about disenchanted Gen-X guys; usually, the Cusack hero has to unlearn some false mantra of self-definition — in GPB it was “I don’t think what a person does necessarily reflects who he is,” and here it’s “What really matters is what you like, not what you are like.” High Fidelity follows the commitment-phobic Rob through his bumpy ride to some sort of contentment; the movie ends up saying nothing more remarkable than that the Robs of the world need a Laura to set them straight, but it feels right here, because what Rob yearns for is more than just a warm body in his bed. He needs meaning, structure, a reason to get up in the morning. There’s more to life than romance or pop music, but there’s no reason you can’t combine the two.

Explore posts in the same categories: adaptation, comedy, one of the year's best, romance

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