High Fidelity
By Joe Leydon

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March 31, 2000 | It’s got a great beat – and, yes, thanks to a nifty soundtrack of tasty pop classics, you really can dance to it – so I’ll rate High Fidelity a solid 100-plus. Adapted with surprising faithfulness, if not the highest fidelity, from Nick Hornby’s sassy and slangy novel, this is a sharp and smart comedy-drama about growing up, taking stock, letting go, setting course and settling down – the top five challenges facing the overgrown-adolescent lead character played so vibrantly by top-billed John Cusack.
Even though the loose-knit plot has been transposed from the funky London environs of Hornby’s novel, High Fidelity 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 – not altogether unexpectedly, since he co-wrote the script – and the best of the best are taken verbatim from the book. He delivers the dialogue with exceptional panache whenever he’s knocking down the fourth wall to directly address the audience. (“I have read books like The Unbearable Lightness of Being and Love in the Time of Cholera, and understood them. I think. They were about girls, right?”) This 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 director Stephen Frears (Dangerous Liaisons).

Cusack plays Rob Gordon, a blithely unambitious thirtysomething who operates Championship Vinyl, a retro record store. As Fidelity begins, Rob is jolted into reconsidering his aimless existence when his long-time live-in girlfriend, Laura (Iben Hjejle), gets fed up and walks out. Trouble is, even when he’s chatting up the audience, Rob is averse to introspection. Instead of asking himself painful questions – like, “Is operating a retro record store a rewarding way to spend your life?” -- he’d really rather banter with his oddball employees: Barry (a scene-stealing, star-making turn by Jack Black), a burly and surly snob who bullies customers into broadening their musical horizons, and Dick (Todd Louiso), a timorous fellow who often looks and sounds as substantial as a wraith.

During the long and frequent hours that pass while Championship Vinyl is 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 also managed – much to Rob’s mortification -- to find a more attractive companion. Is there a pattern here? If so, Rob would prefer not to notice it.

Frears – who also directed Cusack in The Grifters (1990) -- takes an almost European approach to his storytelling here, allowing the narrative to unfold with a randomness that is doubtless more apparent than real. Appropriately enough for a movie that deals with pop-music recordings, Frears varies the pace as artfully as an ace record producer who knows just when to place a ballad between two hard-rock numbers, and when to make room for an extended drum solo. Scenes that play like stand-up 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.

Cusack gives a fresh, fearless and ferociously funny performance, all the while remaining scrupulously true to the character Hornby created: A self-absorbed semi-bohemian who’s too obstinate and narcissistic to be easily liked, but too willing to admit his many and varied failings to be wholly unsympathetic. He may be, with alarming frequency, a thoroughgoing bastard. But he knows he’s a bastard, and he really would like to be, if not a much better person, than at least not such a selfish bastard. 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.