High Fidelity (United States, 2000)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Even in his early roles, like a supporting part in John Hughes' Sixteen Candles and the male lead in Rob Reiner's delightful The Sure Thing, there was something idiosyncratic about John Cusack's work. Recently, however, this quality has become more pronounced, with eccentric interpretations of characters in Grosse Pointe Blank, This Is My Father (a memorable cameo), Pushing Tin, and Being John Malkovich. One of the things that makes Cusack interesting is that his characters always seem to have overdosed on caffeine. Rob Gordon, the protagonist of High Fidelity, is no exception. If there's such a thing as a prototypical "Cusack character", Rob fits the mold.

Based on the novel by Nick Hornby, High Fidelity is a quirky comedy that explores the romantic misfortunes of the main character. Rob is the owner of "Championship Vinyl", a music store that specializes in lp's. Along with his assistants, belligerent Barry (Jack Black) and meek Dick (Todd Louiso), Rob does his best to keep his shop afloat, even though it's barely making enough for him to keep him off welfare. Rob is a neurotic, and he obsesses over his lackluster romantic history. Fond of making Top 5 lists, Rob has recently composed his "Top 5 all-time break-ups", and he re-lives each of them in his head, from a high-school sweetheart he kissed under the bleachers to the beautiful Charlie (Catherine Zeta-Jones), who is even more self-absorbed than Rob. His latest loss, however, has hit Rob the hardest, because he belatedly realized she may have been "the one." Her name is Laura (Iben Hjejle), and, after growing weary of Rob's general listlessness and unwillingness to commit, she decided to leave him and move in with a former neighbor, new wave guru Ian (Tim Robbins).

As far as the plot goes, there really isn't one - High Fidelity is a movie driven by characters (Rob's in particular) and situational comedy. A significant portion of the film takes place in the record store, and it's there that High Fidelity shines, with Barry verbally abusing ignorant customers and Dick shyly making advances towards a girl (Sara Gilbert) he finds attractive. For the most part, Rob stays in the background during these scenes, watching bemusedly as his two cohorts conduct business. He comments that he can't fire them because he "hired [them] for 3 days a week , then they started showing up every morning - that was 4 years ago."

Rob is going through a mid-life crisis and is trying to analyze why his romantic history has more craters in it than the moon's surface. As a form of therapy, he decides to see as many of his old girlfriends as he can, but that approach doesn't really work. He also tries a fling with a local musician (Lisa Bonet), but he ends up feeling used when she reveals she was only interested in the sex. Ultimately for Rob, it all comes back to Laura, and she is determined to sever any remaining connections with him. However, he takes heart when he manages to wring the concession from here that there's a "nine percent" chance of their getting back together.

The humor throughout High Fidelity is wry and witty, although rarely uproarious. The best scene features three very different takes on a record store confrontation between Rob and Ian. There's also a lot of fourth wall breaking (perhaps too much), with Cusack frequently taking time to address the camera directly. At the film's helm is British-born Stephen Frears, the director of such notable productions as Dangerous Liaisons and The Snapper. Frears, who has always embraced peculiar stories that highlight rapier-sharp wit with occasional, non-intrusive social commentary, brings an offbeat rhythm to High Fidelity. On the surface, the storyline may not be all that original (and it isn't), but Frears tweaks it in such a manner that it seems fresh and welcome.

Cusack is supported by a high profile group of actors. Aside from Todd Louiso and Jack Black, who play the Laurel and Hardy of "Championship Vinyl", the biggest part belongs to Iben Hjejle, who is using High Fidelity as her entrance into the American market. Hjejle is as fetching here as she was in the recent Mifune, and she speaks English with only the barest trace of an accent. Lili Taylor and Catherine Zeta-Jones have small parts as Rob's former girlfriends. John's sister, Joan (a frequent guest in her brother's movies), plays Rob's gal pal, Liz, who is supportive of him until Laura tells her a few unsavory details about why the breakup occurred.

There's no deep meaning to High Fidelity, although it occasionally toys with the importance of pop music to a person's psychological development. At one point early in the film, Rob muses, "Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable, or was I miserable because I listened to pop music?" There's more than a hint of Woody Allen in the project, from the neuroses of the main character to the Annie Hall-type dissection of a failed romance, but without the stigma that some movie-goers attach to anything Allen does. Because of its quirky characters, smart dialogue, and occasional bursts of penetrating humor, High Fidelity stands out as a "small" motion picture that deserves wide exposure.

High Fidelity (United States, 2000)

Run Time: 1:50
U.S. Release Date: 2000-03-31
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Sexual Situations)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1