High Fidelity
"Get your patchouli stink out of my store!" says John Cusack to
Tim Robbins in
High Fidelity.

(© 2000 Touchstone Pictures. All rights reserved.)

M O V I E   R E V I E W   B Y   G A R Y   J O H N S O N

"Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable, or was I miserable because I listened to pop music?"

--Rob Gordon (John Cusack) in High Fidelity

Championship Vinyl doesn't have the best location in town. Foot traffic is rare. It's buried in an industrial section of Chicago. Customers have to make an extra effort to reach the store. But within its walls exists music heaven for the vinyl addict--provided you don't mind getting insulted by the sales clerks. Owner Rob Gordon (John Cusack) and his two employees, Dick (Todd Louiso) and Barry (Jack Black), are like misplaced royalty who hold court in their own little fiefdom. They're elitist snobs who "shit on everybody" (Rob's words) who know less about music than they do--which is pretty much everybody. However, at the same time, you have to admire the passion they have about music. If they could only channel their passion toward a practical goal but that's totally irrelevant for them. Whereas some people might use their creative energy to write a book or paint a picture or compose a song, they express their feelings by making audio tapes. Hunkered down in front of their stereos while sorting through stacks of records, they look for the songs that evoke whatever feelings they want to share. This is the language of their preferred mode of artistic expression. At work, they communicate by means of their all-time top-five lists, created at a moment's notice. Name a category--"the all-time top-five songs about setting stuff on fire!"--and their minds start whirring.

Based on a book by Nick Hornby, High Fidelity is an unusual and surprising movie. Whereas romantic comedies tend to be one of the most conservative and safe forms of filmmaking, High Fidelity takes its narrative structure from an "All-Time Top Five Most Memorable Breakups" list that Rob compulsively rattles off for our benefit. As he counts down the worst romantic break-ups that he has experienced, the movie zips back in time to show us the break-ups first hand. So instead of unveiling a chronological chain of events, High Fidelity zig zags through the past as Rob obsesses about his latest girlfriend, Laura (Iben Hjejle). She has just walked out on him, and although he initially refuses to place her on the "All-Time Top Five Most Memorable Breakups" list, we know he's protesting just a little bit too much. Hell, he's devastated at the prospect of life without her.

As Rob wallows in the pain and anguish of love, High Fidelity simultaneously sneers at his schizophrenic attitude: he's so crushed by Laura's departure that he stands in the rain outside her apartment calling her from a pay phone (and getting totally drenched in the process), but soon afterward, once Laura agrees to move back in, he's compiling musical selections on an audio tape for a pretty young journalist who he met in his store. What does he want? Isn't Laura the woman of his dreams? But why is he still thinking of other women? "Arrrrrrrgggggggghhhhhhhhhhh!" shouts Rob as he smacks the sides of his head and collapses on the curb. Okay. Maybe Laura really is #1 on the "All-Time Top Five Most Memorable Breakups" list.

stills from
High Fidelity
[click photos for larger versions]

Directed by Stephen Frears (who also directed Dangerous Liaisons, The Snapper, and My Beautiful Launderette), High Fidelity nails to perfection the slacker environment at a used record store. Dick and Barry ("The musical moron twins," as Rob calls them) are a Laurel and Hardy-like duo: Dick is a quiet, introverted fanatic while Barry is frenetic and excessive. But they're inseparable. Three years ago Rob hired them as part-time help, but they just started showing up every day. Todd Louiso and Jack Black (as Dick and Barry, respectively) have created marvelously complex characters. A screenplay can only go so far in creating personalities; Louiso and Black have filled in and rounded out their characters and made them into people so familiar you'll swear you've known people just like them.

And the environment of Championship Vinyl has been meticulously created. The filmmakers searched around the world for the albums, singles, posters, and magazines (many of them rare collector's items) placed on display in the racks and on the walls. This world is slightly run down and worn, but it's filled with color and energy.

Also much in the movie's favor is the delightfully off-kilter approach taken to Rob's love life. He struggles to make sense of his past romances by re-examining each break-up. Why did it happen? Who caused it? Did it happen because of some quality he lacks? Will he ever find true love? Or is he destined to drift through life, unattached and suffering? Rob considers these questions to be of paramount importance, but director Frears cues us to see the absurdity. His camera emphasizes the piles of albums that Rob surrounds himself with. His camera emphasizes the complete lack of awareness on Rob's face as he stands in the rain screaming for Laura. And his camera emphasizes Rob's zonked-out, raccoon-in-headlights expression when Laura's new hippie boyfriend, Ian (Tim Robbins in a very funny performance), walks into Championship Vinyl for a heart-to-heart discussion. "Get your patchouli stink out of my store!" Rob fantasizes shouting before reality kicks back in and finds him standing immobile. Ian smiles, wishes him well, and slips out the door.

At the movie's core, however, is a big void. The character of Laura needs to be someone we can get excited about. But Iben Hjejle plays the character as it's written--or rather as it's underwritten. Whereas Todd Louiso and Jack Black invent a wide range of outlandish mannerisms for their characters, Hjejle allows Laura to become a nondescript little mouse. It's difficult to care whether or not Rob gets back together with her. He needs someone, but is Laura really that person? Maybe not. But the movie's logic forces us to embrace her as Rob's savior. This void created by Laura's lack of presence makes the movie seem repetitive and overlong.

Meanwhile, John Cusack delivers one of the best performances of his career. Following his first-rate performance in Being John Malkovich, his role as Rob Gordon is an amazingly intricate characterization who can be witty and sardonic in one scene and confused and self-centered in the next. Much of the movie's burden falls directly on his face as he delivers monologues into camera: "Why am I doomed to be left? Doomed to be rejected?" Cusack played a much larger role in High Fidelity than just playing the lead role: he also co-wrote the screenplay and served as co-producer. This movie appears to have been a labor of love for Cusack, who loved Nick Hornby's book and jumped at the chance of playing Rob Gordon. While the book was set in London, the movie transfers Championship Vinyl to Chicago, an environment where Cusack looks very at ease. And the movie surrounds him with a bevy of old girlfriends (Joelle Carter, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Lili Taylor), current attractions (Lisa Bonet as a pop/jazz singer who Rob beds while suffering in isolation from Laura), and future beaus (Natasha Gregson Wagner as a young journalist who Rob meets in his record store). In addition, Cusack's sister Joan plays Rob's you guessed it, sister, a role she's an obvious expert at. Sara Gilbert also lends support as a music lover who grabs Dick's attention.

High Fidelity is one of the best comedies of the past year. But there's an emptiness at its center that keeps the movie from ever completely taking off. It's sort of like listening to a great album on your stereo but one of your speakers tends to crackle during the quiet moments. Still, High Fidelity is filled with energy and excellent performances. It's not a complete success, but if you've ever known people like Rob and Dick and Barry, it should definitely be on your must-see list.

[rating: 3 of 4 stars]

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Movie Web site: High Fidelity



Photos: (© 2000 Touchstone Pictures. All rights reserved.)