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The Boston Phoenix Record Romance

Sweet sounds in "High Fidelity"

By Peter Keough

APRIL 3, 2000:  Few actors capture the imagination of lovelorn, self-pitying, arrested adolescent men -- and that's pretty much all of us guys at one time or another -- the way John Cusack does. The droopy moue mouth, the smoldering but furtive brown eyes, the pasty pallor, the dithering, insinuating, whiny wit -- even under the facial hair or subsumed by the persona of John Malkovich in Being John Malkovich, he's the consummate wounded puppy. Neither, I'm told, is his charm lost on women -- he's a tall Woody Allen with looks and a nice smile.

Any other actor taking on the self-important, incessant prattle of Rob, the romantically challenged and underachieving hero and narrator of Nick Hornby's comic novel High Fidelity, would have been insufferable. Hugh Grant? Ewan McGregor? That sounds like the beginning of a Top 5 list of comic actors overrated because they have a British accent. Cusack, though, brings his own baggage, namely the need to relocate Rob's funky Championship Vinyl record store from London to Chicago. Not that Hornby's opus is inviolable; as a writer, he's an aimless Martin Amis without bile or bite but with plenty of insouciant charm. But when you've got a director, Stephen Frears, whose touch in re-creating the down-and-out of London, its aura of stagnant classism and defeatism, has been unequaled since My Beautiful Laundrette, what's the point? Especially when The Grifters, another adaptation of a cult novel featuring John Cusack, looked and felt like a humorless version of Warren Beatty's Dick Tracy.

Inoffensive if generic, the Chicago setting does afford an uncluttered stage for the characters, meaning mostly Cusack's Rob -- which gets to be a mixed blessing as High Fidelity plays on. Both Rob and the movie start badly. His girlfriend Laura (Iben Hjejle) is abandoning him to his apartment full of record albums (which he later rearranges "autobiographically"). In the first of many direct addresses to the camera, Rob blames his and his generation's failure in love on thousands of pop lyrics celebrating heartbreak.

How to deal with it? Since life at its best is a playlist or a greatest-hits compilation, he puts Laura's departure in the context of his Top 5 greatest break-ups, and the bulk of High Fidelity has him reliving these past tragedies in quirky flashbacks, trying to figure out why he always ends up alone, and maybe then getting back with Laura -- if he still wants to.

That's a lot of Cusack, and at times it seems Fidelity could linger longer on the other cast members. Some of Rob's tales of heartbreak are intended to show what an uncomprehending jerk he is -- for instance, Heartbreak #2, Penny (Joelle Carter) from freshman year in college, whom he dumped because she wouldn't put out, traumatizing her so badly that she became a film critic. But the film is so immersed in Rob's point of view that the irony is lost.

Rising above the background noise are Barry (Jack Black, a portly superball of comic energy) and Dick (Todd Louiso, who looks like the Star Baby from the end of 2001 grown up), Rob's assistants at the record store, a pair of music freaks whom, one suspects, he keeps around because they are even bigger losers than himself and are always good for bouncing another Top 5 list off. That's a lucky thing for the movie, because they bring High Fidelity back to life whenever Rob's self-indulgence threatens to suffocate it. Also adding a high note is Tim Robbins as Ian, Laura's ponytailed new-agey new boyfriend -- though his best moments occur mostly in Rob's fantasies of Ian making love to Laura or Rob taking revenge on Ian with an air conditioner. As for Laura herself, Iben Hjejle shows little of the fire of her performance in Søren Kragh-Jacobsen's Dogma 95 movie Mifune, and though at first she looks striking, on second glance she seems like a neutral fusion of all Rob's other girlfriends.

Cusack's biggest competitor for air time in High Fidelity is, of course, the soundtrack -- it takes up four pages of credits in the press kit and the artists range from Bruce Springsteen to Burt Bacharach, from Peter Frampton to Liz Phair. But for a movie about a guy who's supposed to be a master of the art of the compilation tape, the synthesis of music and image doesn't resound. "What came first," Rob asks at the beginning, "the music or the misery?" Either way, what came next were the words -- the nonstop, intoxicating, infuriating rap of another callow romantic refusing to grow up.


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