"What came first? Music or the misery? Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable, or was I miserable because I listened to pop music?" Rob (John Cusack) asks the camera in the opening words of High Fidelity.
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The thirty-something schmuck has plenty of both music and misery: an apartment filled from floor to ceiling with classic vinyl records and a recent breakup with his girlfriend Laura (Iben Hjejle). With the doorslam of lost love still echoing in his apartment, Rob starts reviewing the girlfriend-pattern of his life. For the next two hours, we wade through the muck of the schmuck.
High Fidelity, based on the novel by Nick Hornby, is an overlong and underfunny movie—a real disappointment when you think about what it could have been: a tightly-paced, brilliantly-funny romantic classic.
As the owner of an independent record store in Chicago, Rob is obsessed with music—especially that obscure kind of rock-and-roll by one-hit artists you’re only dimly aware of. He’s also obsessed with love and sex. Quite often, he’s obsessed with love and sex when it’s combined with rock-and-roll. Breakup songs play endlessly over the speakers in his seldom-frequented shop. If there’s an aspect of love, Rob’s got a song for it.
As does the movie itself. High Fidelity is brimming with a made-to-order soundtrack. Elton John, the Kinks, the Velvet Underground, Elvis Costello and many others come at us with grating insistence. In a movie like this, the music should be the water, not the raging current (for a better example of how the soundtrack floats the story, see Saturday Night Fever).
Rob, being a typical love-obsessed geek-freak, is also a list-maker. Top Five Songs to Play at a Funeral ("Many Rivers to Cross," Jimmy Cliff), Top Five Dream Jobs (producer, Atlantic Records, 1964-71) and—the list that propels the film—Top Five Breakups of All Time. Laura’s recent exit from his life has just bumped her up to the List.
For the first half hour of the movie, we watch Rob review the other four entries from his past: junior high crush Alison (Shannon Stillo), high school crush Penny (Joelle Carter), flighty Sarah (Lili Taylor) and beautiful-but-inaccessible Charlie (Catherine Zeta-Jones). Pretty soon, we start to see a pattern. Rob is a sullen jerk, a taker not a giver. It’s no wonder these women dumped him and it’s only due to her saintlike patience that Laura hung on so long. When we do get to meet her, Laura is a sweet, matter-of-fact girl who’s instantly likable, despite the fact that she leaves Rob for a drippy New Age guru named Ian (a very funny Tim Robbins). Much of Laura’s charm comes from the Danish Hjejle’s outstanding American debut performance.
Also adding charm—in varying degrees—are Rob’s two employees: the meek wallflower Dick (Todd Louiso) and the hyper, music-obsessed Barry (Jack Black). The two function like a yin-yang Laurel and Hardy, balancing Rob’s woebegone character. Louiso and Black take difficult roles and make the best of them.
For awhile, High Fidelity is brisk and clever as D.V. DeVincentis brings Hornby’s novel across the ocean from London to Chicago. There are actually some very funny one-liners which make a smooth transatlantic crossing ("Liking both Marvin Gaye and Art Garfunkel is like supporting both the Israelis and the Palestinians," Rob says). DeVincentis, like Hornby, seems to know all about the ins and outs of love. Especially the outs.
Director Stephen Frears (The Grifters, Dangerous Liaisons) employs a style as quirky as Rob’s musical choices. Despite the convention, I liked the fact that the love-puppy periodically broke the fourth wall and addressed the audience. It’s worked for everyone from Shakespeare to Woody Allen and it helps give High Fidelity its spark.
You’re gonna need that spark before too long because High Fidelity eventually turns into an experience akin to listening to "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald"…with a bad skip midway through. Rob is a miserable, self-absorbed paranoid and his self-analysis starts to wear pretty thin pretty fast. If you’re into commiserating with love-losers, then you’ll probably groove to this movie. As for me, I jotted this note along about the time Rob was making his umpteenth begging phone call to Laura: Is there any reason to like this guy?
Other than the fact that you’re staring at the same guy who went through all those romantic gyrations in The Sure Thing, Better Off Dead, One Crazy Summer, Say Anything…, and Grosse Pointe Blank…no.
I’ve always liked John Cusack because he’s got the kind of face that looks like it can take a punch to the heart and keep on beating. Even the slap from a insulted girlfriend wouldn’t be enough to knock that liquid, limpid look of love from his soulful eyes. Here, Cusack seems to be updating all his teenage loser-lovers with the kind of portrayal that calls to mind slumped shoulders, cold coffee and three-day stubble. Only trouble is, the thing I love about a movie like The Sure Thing is the fact that it’s a fantasy romance where things always work out for the impossible good in the end. This is not to say that Rob doesn’t turn out equally fortunate here, but along the way, it’s all about gulping cold coffee and shuffling through stacks of heartbreak ballads.
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