High Fidelity (2000) *** 1/2
Directed by Stephen Frears. Screenplay, D.V. DeVincentis, Steve Pink, John Cusack, Scott Rosenberg, based on the eponymous novel by Nick Hornby. Photography, Seamus McGarvey. Editing, Mick Audsley. Production design, David Chapman, Therese DePrez. Music, Howard Shore. Music supervisor, Kathy Nelson. Cast: John Cusack (Rob Gordon), Iben Hjejle (Laura),Todd Louiso (Dick), Jack Black (Barry), Lisa Bonet (Marie De Salle), Catherine Zeta-Jones (Charlie), Joan Cusack (Liz), Tim Robbins (Ian), Chris Rehmann (Vince), Ben Carr (Justin), Lili Taylor (Sarah), Joelle Carter (Penny), Natasha Gregson Wagner (Caroline), Sara Gilbert (Anaugh), Bruce Springsteen (Himself). A Touchstone Picture released by Buena Vista. 113 minutes. R (language)
The astute title "High Fidelity" has many meanings. The music is pre-hip hop or rap. The characters entranced by vinyl albums (when not critical of them) are Generation Xers who cult-ivate (sic) the sounds of their adolescence. It's fitting, because they are in a state of suspended youth even though the age of the principals-on-screen is about the same as the age of the principals-in-life. John Cusack was born in 1966, Jack Black in 1969, etc.
Rob (Cusack) owns and vaguely runs Championship Vinyl, a store of used records on a Chicago street that gets little pedestrian traffic. He has two employees. They were hired for three days a week but are there all the time,which tells you something about their passion for certain kinds of music and their nonexistent private life or other interests. The store looks well-stocked with records but is woefully un-stocked with customers. How it and its three people survive, how the stuff is bought, how rent, taxes or utilities are paid is a mystery. But the movie, like its characters, is above such mundane considerations.
It is, however, an excellent filmization of a popular book, and a seamlessly credible transposition to Chicago of the original novel's setting in London. Many, often lengthy passages of the book's text are quoted. The trick is to have Rob address directly the audience. No stinting here.
What gets the whole thing going is that Rob's longtime live-in girlfriend Laura (Danish actress Iben Hjejle) suddenly fed up with his messiness, immaturity, lingering childishness and other such characteristics, walks out on him.
The store's male trio are music-on-vinyl geeks. "Geeks" falls on some people's ears with a negative connotation. But then some geeks can be endearing. They may be living in a strange world of their own, but at least they have a passion for something, be this computers, toy trains, stamp collecting, dancing... the list is endless. The three men's musical knowledge is encyclopedic. Rejoice, geeks in the audience! You can hear some 60 songs, though mostly in excerpts.
The Championship Three are idiosyncratic. Bulky Barry combines a haughty attitude of Papal infallibility in pop music matters,with rude intolerance for tastes he does not share. Fragile, mumbling, timid, bald-pated Dick is a masculine wallflower. Moody Rob seems to be in a semi-trance-like state which melds indifference,worries, whining and self-irony. The trio, especially the two helpers, judge people by their musical tastes. It's like "tell me what you like and I'll tell who you are and if I'll like you" -- a valid criterion in many situations. What all those men share is the mania for making lists of the top five albums in categories that range from life, love and death to abstruse topics. Laura's departure triggers in Rob a flood of self-centered questions. His thoughts in the book become in the movie direct addresses to the audience. And the listomania makes him create his own top five worst breakups with the women in his life. Supplemented by voice-overs, his speeches are a messy mass of analyses, self-pity, puzzlements, alibis but also self-criticisms in which he does not spare himself. All are beautifully done, amusing rather than pathetic, indeed often hilarious. They alternate between lucidity, myopia, good and bad faith, and are illustrated by compact, colorful flasbacks of his romances, from his teens onwards.
Rob's tales of his amorous discomfitures are briefly interrupted by a one-night stand with singer Lisa Bonet. It does not light the man's lantern of self-knowledge but he does gain confidence. In entertaining sequences he visits old flames who tell him (I forget if it is in some cases or all) that he was the one who broke up the affairs. This is followed by a temporarily renewed relationship with one ex, a recently jilted neurotic. What Rob wants most is Laura's return. She has moved in with a New Age legal guru (Tim Robbins) who specializes in resolving conflicts. This adds to the film's ironies, as Rob is trying to resolve his own conflicts. His talking to the viewers is a form of "I am my own shrink," but then, self-surgery is no easy process.
I cannot divulge what happens next, but one does suspect that there is no true closure since Rob is not a leopard that can change his spots. It does not take reading between the lines either to realize that by higher standards, none of Rob's girls was interesting enough, and neither was Rob. He deserved whatever he got. Laura however is a cut above the rest and gets more vignettes than the others.
The movie rests overwhelmingly on Cusack's shoulders, even though Todd Louiso's and Jack Black's very well played weirdoes, bring fresh comic relief. It is more than a film with Cusack, it 's a Cusack film, with It has the same genuinely maverick, absurdist-realistic-humorous ambiance as the previous all-Cusack "Grosse Pointe Blank." Of the four scenarists of each movie, three are the same in both. In those pictures,as well as in others, a variety of Cusack personae emerge, often different from one another yet with a base of effortless likeability that makes the low-key actor stand out. He stays with you the way high-key Jack Nicholson or Dustin Hoffman do --and far more than most performers of Cusack's age group.
The breaking of the Fourth Wall (Cusack's direct speeches to us) is handled with convincing efficiency. The device can be dangerous, precious or annoyingly artificial. It worked well with Michael Caine in "Alfie" (1966) which for many people was the first movie to use this approach. But it already existed, as in olden days, funny movie-shorts, especially Robert Benchley's "lectures." In Jean-Luc Godard's innovative "Breathless" (1959) actor Belmondo very briefly speaks directly to us, and so on.
This brings me to my wondering whether or not there are Godardian influences here. The Frenchman's films overflow with questions spoken by their characters. Ultimately we get Godard himself thinking aloud. There are other whiffs of Godard, especially Rob's early "Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable, or was I miserable because I listened to pop music?" This very pattern abounds in Godard's paradoxes. The movie is, after "The Grifters" (USA, 1990), Cusack's second collaboration with British director Stephen Frears. Frears knows how to bring characters to life, how not to mess up scripts or interfere with his actors' talents. In England, his first dozen pictures and several later ones were TV productions moved rapidly to theaters. This no doubt played a major role in Frears's sense of economy of budget, story-telling and construction. Subsequent titles include "The Hit,' "My Beautiful Laundrette," "Sammy and Rosie Get Laid,""The Snapper," and in the U.S "Dangerous Liaisons," "Hero."
"High Fidelity" proves that Cusack and Frears were made for each other. More, more!