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*** Stars
(US 2000)


Starring:
John Cusack, Iben Hjejle, Jack Black, Todd Louiso

Directed by Stephen Frears

Writing credits: Nick Hornby (novel), D.V. DeVincentis, John Cusack, Steve Pink, Scott Rosenberg

Touchstone Pictures * 113 minutes


Alas, being of the baby boom generation, I had never even HEARD of Nick Hornby's book HIGH FIDELITY prior to hearing of Stephen Frears' film. I had, however, heard of John Cusack, and indeed I must confess to have been a fan of his; possessed of a fandom loyal and true, arguably since SIXTEEN CANDLES. Cusack is the actor for whom my own personal "John Cusack Rule" was invented:

"I'll sit through anything with John Cusack in it."

Even BETTER OFF DEAD.

cusack_black.jpg - 21892 BytesThat HIGH FIDELITY happens to be a particularly delightful Cusack vehicle is in no way colored by my admitted lack of objectivity where this particular individual is concerned. Once again, as in BEING JOHN MALKOVICH, Cusack strives to avoid his stock in trade -- unaffected boyish charm; preferring this time around to be a real jerk who is painfully aware of his own jerkiness but unable to stop himself without superhuman effort and a series of rants directed right at the filmgoing audience.

Cusack is Rob Gordon, the owner of one of those "How the heck do they stay in business?" vinyl record emporia, transplanted from Hornby's original London locale to Chicago. Rob is a self-professed music junkie who toils away at Championship Vinyl with his two buddy/employees, Dick (Todd Louiso, resembling a healthier Michael Stipe) and Barry (Jack Black, resembling an even more manic Meat Loaf). Rob's alleged great knowledge of popular music and his immersion in same, don't cross over into his love life. His most recent girlfriend, Laura (Rob and Laura? 1960's TV fans anyone) has left him, and he is now involved in a fit of navel-gazing, trying to figure out (without taking any blame himself), why his relationships never work.

I'm told that Hornby's book is the kind of cult classic among twenty-somethings the way Tom Robbins' EVEN COWGIRLS GET THE BLUES was for my generation. However, Stephen Frears, who has amassed a consistent body of cheeky, excellent work (THE HIT, DANGEROUS LIAISONS, THE GRIFTERS, also with Cusack) along with some real dogs, has far better luck with HIGH FIDELITY than Gus Van Sant did with COWGIRLS. But if HIGH FIDELITY is perhaps less faithful to its origin than purists would like, it stands beautifully on its own as yet another entry in the Cusack Romantic Comedy oeuvre.

Space aliens would believe that narration is a necessary component in film these days, but HIGH FIDELITY takes this technique one step further, and breaks down the "third wall" between the film and the audience by having Rob Gordon do his ruminations about love directly at the audience, as if we too were his employees and buddies at Championship Vinyl. In the hands of a less engaging actor, or given less sparkling monologues, this would become arch and annoying in no time. Yet the force of Cusack's personality and the wit of the writing in these rants outweigh the fact that they constitute about half of the picture. After all, who HASN'T had a friendship-turned-romantic relationship because "...it made sense to share our loathing of the opposite sex." And who HASN'T gone nearly crazy wondering what an ex-lover is doing now by thinking, "No [woman] has ever had better sex than the sex you have with [Ian] in my head."

confrontation.jpg - 17215 BytesNo one does this sort of comedic, sad-sack, Everyman brooding better than Cusack, and if he wrote the character specifically for himself, it can be forgiven. He's the sort of rare actor that women love and men relate to. Rob Gordon is what Lloyd Dobler from SAY ANYTHING would have turned into, given enough years of romantic failure. And if screaming "Charlie, you fucking bitch, let's work it out!" while standing outside Catherine Zeta-Jones' window in the rain doesn't pack the same romantic punch as standing outside Ione Skye's window holding a boombox playing Peter Gabriel's In Your Eyes, well, that's just the ravages of time on one's romantic psyche.

cusack_taylor.jpg - 14760 BytesAnd speaking of SAY ANYTHING, perhaps the best high school romantic comedy ever made and the film that turned Cusack from a geek into a leading man, HIGH FIDELITY also boasts the in-joke of reuniting Cusack with some of his co-stars from that film, including not only sister Joan (in a small, but scene-stealing role is Rob's take-no-prisoners friend Liz) but also Lili Taylor as the aforementioned friend-turned-love interest.

couple.jpg - 15725 BytesIn watching Rob recount his "Top Five Breakups" (the film is rife with such lists), it occurred to me that Rob is plagued as much by his bad taste in women as by his inability to transcent his jerkiness. Each of his romantic interests (including relative newcomer Iben Hjeile as Laura) is as hopelessly self-involved as Rob himself. Hjeile has an interesting, ethereal face, but has little chemistry with Cusack, and we never see her as someone worth the pain of wrestling ones demons to the mat. Rob may be obnoxious, but his women aren't much better.

jackblack.jpg - 18469 BytesA self-indulgent character like Rob requires funny sidekicks to break the tension, and HIGH FIDELITY boasts two of them. Jack Black, in the manic fat-boy role, sweats and swaggers his way through the picture as Barry, the music snob who'll refuse to sell a record merely because he doesn't like the buyer's face. Black is one of those hard-working character actors in search of a breakout role, and this is it. Ferociously zany in the tradition of Chris Farley without once making Farley's mistake of going too far over the top, Black is the perfect antidote to Rob's dour negativism. It's not easy to play opposite a fireball role like this one, but Todd Louiso as the quiet, insecure, perhaps psychotic Dick manages to more than hold his own. When Todd finds romance with a geeky Sara Gilbert, it's easy to cheer him.

Fine cameo performances round out the cast. Lili Taylor, who seems to be now making a career out of vaguely neurotic, not-quite-pretty-enough spinsterish women, is acceptable, though it's too bad Joan and John Cusack are siblings, because this is a throwaway role Joan Cusack could have hit out of the park, and Catherine Zeta-Jones, as the flashy, narcissistic Charlie, riffs nicely on her own image. Yet the cameo that brings down the house is Tim Robbins as New Age kook Ian, the upstairs neighbor for whom Laura leaves Rob. Robbins plays Ian with the pretentious serenity of a charlatan guru and the goofy countenance of Nuke LaLoosh, and when Rob fantasizes about beating him to death with an air conditioner, the audience at the screening I attended broke out in cheers.

The most important co-star in HIGH FIDELITY, however, is the music. The Championship Vinyl set is full of "blink and you'll miss something" shots of obscure records you used to have. Half the fun of the film is nudging your companion and saying, "I had that record." Few films recognize the importance of popular music in creating memories of the instances of one's life. HIGH FIDELITY eschews the kind of sappy, overplayed pop songs used in swill like NOTTING HILL and YOU'VE GOT MAIL, in favor of rare treats like The Velvet Underground's Oh! Sweet Nuthin' and the Kinks Everyone's Gonna Be Happy. Rob and his friends may be jerks, but they sure are interesting jerks.

If HIGH FIDELITY has one glaring flaw, it's that it runs about twenty minutes too long, and like Cusack's last writing effort, GROSSE POINTE BLANK, runs out of gas a bit during the climactic "made for music video" scene. This is a minor quibble, and in an era in which Hugh Grant is the romantic comedy hero of choice, HIGH FIDELITY is a breath of fresh, if cynical, air.



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Review text copyright © 1999 Cozzi fan Tutti. All rights reserved. Reproduction of text in whole or in part in any form or in any medium without express written permission of Cozzi fan Tutti is prohibited.



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