Top five reasons why “High Fidelity” is some kind of wonderful: (1) John Cusack’s fresh, fearless and ferociously funny lead performance; (2) a trenchantly witty and acutely insightful script; (3) surprising faithfulness to first-rate source material; (4) cunningly graceful direction by Stephen Frears, who smoothly maneuvers through mood swings and tempo variegations; and (5) this is the first great date movie of 2000. This may not be enough to guarantee big B.O., since teens may prove immune to the film’s older-skewing charms. But Baby Boomers and Gen-Yers should respond sufficiently to make this freewheeling comedy-drama surpass the last picture Cusack, D.V. DeVincentis and Steve Pink co-wrote, “Grosse Pointe Blank,” and enjoy a healthy afterlife in homevid.
Even though the loose-knit plot has been transposed from the funky London environs of Nick Hornby’s novel, the picture, which world preemed at the SXSW Festival in Austin, Texas, is smashingly successful at reconstituting the author’s sensibility and sense of humor in and around downtown Chicago.
Cusack gets most of the best lines, almost all of which are taken verbatim from the book. And he delivers the dialogue with exceptional panache whenever he’s knocking down the fourth wall to directly address the audience. The first-person approach is a tricky thing to pull off in cinema — for every “Alfie,” there are a dozen cringe-worthy embarrassments — but Cusack makes it work, with more than a little help from Frears.
Cusack plays Rob Gordon, a blithely unambitious thirtysomething who fell into a semi-comfortable rut years ago when he opened Championship Vinyl, a retro record store. As “Fidelity” begins, Rob is jolted into taking stock of his aimless existence when his longtime live-in girlfriend, Laura (Iben Hjejle), gets fed up and walks out. Trouble is, Rob is averse to introspection. Instead of asking himself painful questions, he’d really rather banter with his oddball employees — Barry (Jack Black), a burly and surly music snob, and Dick (Todd Louiso), a timorously insubstantial fellow.
During the long and frequent hours that pass with Championship Vinyl as a customer-free zone, Rob and his workers create various all-time top five lists of songs and singers (Top Five Songs About Death, Top Five First Cuts on First Albums, etc.). When it comes to self-assessment, Rob remains obsessed with list-making, to the point of compiling an all-time Top Five Most Memorable Split-Ups. This cues a series of flashbacks as Rob recalls, among others, a dazzling college co-ed (Catherine Zeta-Jones) who unceremoniously dumped him for someone more exciting, and a broken-hearted manic-depressive (Lili Taylor) who did the same.
Throughout “High Fidelity,” Cusack remains scrupulously true to the character Hornby created: an overgrown adolescent who’s too narcissistic and self-indulgent to be easily liked, but too willing to admit his more unpleasant qualities to be wholly unsympathetic. He knows he’s a son of a bitch and really would like to be, if not a much better person, then at least not so much of a rotter. At heart, “High Fidelity” is the story of a cynically hip Peter Pan who, almost in spite of himself, drags himself a few tentative paces closer to full-fledged adulthood.
(One minor quibble: While compiling Rob’s Top Five Break-Ups, the movie inexplicably fails to mention scenario No. 3 — which, in Hornby’s book, reveals a teenage Rob at his most ruthlessly selfish.)
Frears, who a decade ago directed Cusack in “The Grifters” (1990), takes a Euro approach to his storytelling here, allowing the narrative to unfold with a randomness that is doubtless more apparent than real. Appropriately enough for a pic that deals with albums, Frears varies the pace as artfully as an ace record producer: Scenes that play like standup comedy riffs are interspersed with rancorous one-on-one conversations, three-way verbal horseplay in the record store, fateful reunions with old flames, wide-awake daydreams of violent revenge and, in an audacious what-the-hell fantasy bit, advice to the lovelorn delivered by the Boss himself, Bruce Springsteen.
Much of “High Fidelity” is given over to the question of whether Laura will return to Rob or stick with a new prospect. Decked out in a ponytail and neo-hippie attire, Tim Robbins comes across as rather more ridiculous than necessary as Ian, an aggressively soulful attorney who works with Laura and eases his way into her heart. Blame it on the actor, the writers or the director — or maybe all three — but almost every scene with this character is a dreary drag. The only excuse for his existence is a hilarious wish-dream in which Ian is battered by Rob and his employees.
Other supporting characters — including Liz, Laura’s best buddy, played by Joan Cusack (John’s real-life sister) — are better written and more amusingly played. At the record store, it’s a toss-up as to who’s funnier, Black (who has a slight edge because of his blunderbuss sarcasm) or Louiso.
Elsewhere, memorable cameo bits are offered by Zeta-Jones, Taylor and Lisa Bonet as a sultry folk singer who enjoys a brief bit of recreational sex with Rob. In fleetingly are Sara Gilbert as a customer who catches Dick’s eye and Natasha Gregson Wagner as a rock journalist who really, really wants to know everything about Rob.
In a striking change of pace from her recent turn as a hooker-turned-housekeeper in “Mifune,” Danish-born Iben Hjejle makes an auspicious U.S. debut as Laura, vividly conveying her character’s profoundly mixed emotions about Rob. There’s a slight but unmistakable trace of an accent in her line readings and maybe someone should have written a line to justify that. But never mind: Hjejle is effective and affecting, and she makes it clear that Laura won’t be a pushover when Rob sets out to win her back.
Production-wise, “High Fidelity” is a slick and sleek package that, not surprisingly, offers an abundance of familiar (and not-so-familiar) pop tunes on an extremely busy soundtrack.