Freewheeling, quaintly heartfelt and full of oddball characters, "High Fidelity" may be the first great date movie of the year. Caught somewhere between Baby Boomer wistfulness and Gen-Xer angst, this romantic comedy offers a fearless and feckless performance from John Cusack. Stuck longer than most in that purgatory between adolescence and adulthood, Cusack is Rob Gordon, a Chicago record store owner who deals only in vinyl. As novelist Nick Hornby crafted in his book of the same name, Rob's obsession with pre-cassette, pre-CD recordings is a telling metaphor for his arrested development. He just won't let go of the past and move on.
When we meet the blithely ambitious owner of "Championship Vinyl," he's just been jolted into taking stock of his meandering existence when longtime live-in girlfriend, Laura (Iben Hjejle), splits. But therein lies the rub, for Rob is not introspective by nature. So instead of asking himself absorbing, telling questions, he'd rather banter with his two very odd employees Barry (a terrifically funny Jack Black), a surly music snob, and Dick (Todd Louiso), his timid foil.
There's plenty of time for such banter as customers are not exactly beating a path to his door. The near-celibate trio passes the time by creating various all-time, top-five lists of songs and singers. This constant compilation leads Rob to put together his personal top five list of breakups. Cue the flashbacks, folks.
As predictable as that transition is, director Stephen Frears ("The Grifters") handles it with a deft and charming gracefulness. On his list are a dazzling Catherine Zeta-Jones as a college coed who drops him for someone more exciting, as well as Lili Taylor as a manic-depressive with a broken heart.
Throughout "High Fidelity," Cusack (who helped adapt the screenplay) remains scrupulously true to Hornby's hero. He never loses sight of the fact that Rob is a narcissistic, overgrown kid who's too self-indulgent to be liked by anybody for long. Rob knows he's an SOB, but he'd really like to be less of one. In less talented hands, this fateful flaw could be irritating. But the boyishly appealing Cusack keeps us wanting to like Rob, even as he continually breaks the fourth wall and talks directly to us. Cusack makes a perfect lost Everyman, lonely but not to willing to accept any of the blame for his condition.
Frears easily transplants Hornby's tale from London to Chicago, allowing the narrative to unfold in a seemingly random manner. Frears also makes great use of a killer retro soundtrack, befitting a story dealing with music. Mixing Rob's relationships with the skilled hands of a record producer, Frears varies the pace from stand-up-comedy style riffs on love and loss to violent dreams of revenge. There's even a what-the-hell bit of lonely-hearts advice from The Boss, Bruce Springsteen.
Most of the movie ponders whether Laura will return to Rob or stay with her new prospect, a ponytailed, sensitive type played by Tim Robbins. Robbins looks the part of the soulful lawyer with a conscience, but he comes across a little more ridiculous than necessary as Rob's rival. For whatever reason the writing, directing or his acting these scenes featuring the usually wonderful Robbins are uniformly a drag. Luckily, the same cannot be said about the scenes featuring the other supporting actors. As Laura's best gal-pal, Liz, Cusack's real-life sister Joan is outspoken and amusing. At the record store, it's a tie as to who is the more entertaining, Black or Louiso. Hjejle also is quite affecting as Laura. When Rob sets out to win her back, we know she won't make it easy for him.
Just as they try hiding their emotions behind their beloved tracks, the men of "High Fidelity" revel in their nonconformity while secretly pining for true, romantic love.
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