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Noting that pop music is a lot about heartbreak, misery, and loss, Rob (John Cusack)
addresses the movie audience directly and muses, "Do I like pop music because I'm
miserable or am I miserable because I listen to pop music?"
The tone is thus set for High
Fidelity, based on a popular novel by Nick Hornby, relocated from Hornby's London to
Chicago. Rob owns a funky record store where more time is spent creating "top
five" song lists with his employees than actually selling the vinyl. (Indeed, in a
performance that energizes the film whenever he's on screen, Jack Black's utter disdain
for the rock ignorance of his customers becomes a funny running joke. He's the ultimate
Rob is being dumped by his current squeeze, Laura (Iben Hjejle), and
the painful end to the affair precipitates some major soul-searching and a review of - you
guessed it - the five top terminated romances in his life, starting back in grade
school days. There are glimpses of moments from those relationships, featuring such talent
as Lili Taylor and Catherine Zeta-Jones, but the focus remains tightly on Cusack, whose
monologue to the audience forms the backbone of the film. It's a well written and witty
outpouring of words that traces Rob's emotional and behavioral history and documents a
growing self-realization of his failures at intimacy and commitment. (The word
"love" seems to be missing from his vocabulary.) The monologue, too, is a comic
take on the ways in which people load up their lovers with projections, expectations,
illusions, and delusions - and the inevitable letdown that follows. That's the subject
matter of so many of those songs.
Cusack is a marvel, delivering lines at a rapid clip, comic timing
just so, wryly introspective, and letting just enough of the underlying vulnerability show
through to make it a rounded and believable portrayal. He's got the physical plasticity to
complement the intelligence that radiates from this performance; the guy has more facial
muscles in his actor's toolbox than most actors know they even possess, no less know how
to use. Hjejle is a charmer, if not up to Cusack's level - her lines on occasion are
delivered with a disconcerting flatness. Playing against Cusack's intensity, her character
seems almost sedated; it's a minor imbalance in a film that gets most of it right.
Todd Louiso plays Black's fellow clerk at the store, a self-effacing
nerd who is a perfect foil for Black's assertiveness. Lisa Bonet is a sultry singer who
uses Rob as a sex object, turning the tables for a change. Joan Cusack in a small role
doesn't get sufficient chance to flex her comic talents, but she is an always welcome
presence on screen. Tim Robbins has a cameo as a smarmy, pony-tailed new age lawyer; he's
there to provide a target for the guys in the store and the results get one of the biggest
laughs of the show.
Seamlessly and creatively directed by Stephen Frears, the film has
clarity and cogency as it switches back and forth in time. Thematically placed in the
heart of pop culture, High Fidelity delivers a sense of contemporary hipness, at
the same time fitting squarely in the classic mold of romantic comedy films. It's You've Got Mail with the sentiment and cutesy-ness
removed, updated for a younger generation and shifted to a more appropriate retail venue.
It's damn good fun.
- Arthur Lazere.