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The Song Remains the Same 

Stephen Frears and John Cusack’s High Fidelity

Wednesday, Mar 29 2000
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Photo by Melissa Mosely

High Fidelity, the new movie from director Stephen Frears and starring John Cusack, is about how hard it is for guys to be adults. Not boiler-room warriors, Maxim thumb-suckers or the denizens of West Hollywood, but regular-Joe straight guys who, having arrived in their mid-30s, are still having a tough time getting, keeping and maybe even wanting all the adult stuff guys of that demographic are meant to have: an apartment that doesn’t look like an abandoned bomb shelter, a post-college wardrobe and, crucially, a woman who can see past the milk-crate shelving, white tube socks and quivering ambivalence. Based on the popular novel by British author Nick Hornby, the film is narrated by a record-shop owner named Rob Gordon (Cusack), whose agonizingly impeccable taste in music hasn’t translated into much discrimination about life in the real world, especially when it comes to women. In the book, Rob is English, like Hornby; in the movie, he’s from Cusack’s hometown, Chicago. As in the book, the film begins with Rob’s “desert-island, all-time, top-five most memorable split-ups,” beginning with the schoolgirl who broke his heart and ending, reluctantly, with the woman, Laura (Iben Hjejle), who’s just walked out the door. The gist of the film is that Rob is a guy who can commit, over and over and over again; the joke is that he’s also, inevitably, the one who gets dumped.

High Fidelity is a romantic comedy, but because it’s about a guy, it tries to pretend it isn’t. Mostly it tries to come off as something else — usually an arrested-development story, if not as arrested as in There’s Something About Mary — by wrapping itself in cool and irony, registers not often present in a genre better known for heat and heart. Irony and cool drive the soundtrack, which folds the story in self-consciousness, sometimes nearly suffocating it. Bow Wow Wow’s “I Want Candy” blares when the 12-year-old Rob first takes note of the newly sprouted breasts bobbing around him; years later, Freddie Mercury howls “We Are the Champions” as Rob, in misguided triumph, makes an entrance into the world of singlehood. At the record store, where Jack Black and Todd Louiso, as Rob’s only employees, continually threaten to snatch the movie from Cusack, the music streams from the sublime (Marvin Gaye) to the ghastly (Katrina and the Waves), and always with a wink — Harry Nilsson’s “The Moonbeam Song” is among the songs cued. The literary references are similarly savvy (The Unbearable Lightness of Being), the Chicago locations unadorned, while the art direction looks funky enough to almost pass for real life. The script is amusing if baggy, with most of the funny stuff straight from the book, such as Rob’s realization that a woman saves her fancy underwear for dating, only to chuck the lace for cotton once she’s moved in.

And, perhaps because it’s about a guy and stars a guy and was written by guys and directed by a guy and mostly produced by guys, High Fidelity is also a romantic comedy in which women play a lot of the roles, but not for long. That’s too bad because the film is filled with interesting women who all seem happy to be sharing the screen with Cusack, if only for a few minutes. There’s Lili Taylor, managing a fine, sympathetic approximation of what you imagine the actual Lili Taylor is like in life — earnest, soft-spoken, slightly withdrawn but not neurotically so. And a sexy, mellow turn by Lisa Bonet as a singer who blows a little smoke into Peter Frampton’s “Baby, I Love Your Way.” Nearly as unexpected is Catherine Zeta-Jones, who struts through the movie, out of place — or maybe out of rhythm — as the woman who broke Rob’s heart after tattooing her insouciance on his memory. Zeta-Jones doesn’t fit into the movie very convincingly, yet she has the big Hollywood presence that allows her to hold her own against a scene stealer like Cusack. Hjejle, a Danish actor who looks somewhat like Patricia Arquette, though without the stunned glaze, is more accomplished, but she doesn’t have Zeta-Jones’ largesse, Bonet’s dazzle or Taylor’s soul, which means that the most important woman in Rob’s life is also played by the dullest.

High Fidelity wants to be hip, but it’s comically square. The book is a clever enough manual about men behaving badly and how, if they would only grow up, they could be rewarded with a grown woman like Laura — for all its allusions and blurb quotations, it’s Bridget Jones’s Diary for the other side. The movie is more fun, but it isn’t interesting or new, and it certainly isn’t His Girl Friday. That’s a lofty standard, to be sure, and High Fidelity is doubtless a better romantic comedy than anything Nora Ephron or Garry Marshall will ever slough off. At the same time, it isn’t anywhere as satisfying as My Best Friend’s Wedding, which was directed by P.J. Hogan, who knows how to make a film move, if not always in the right direction, and isn’t accounted as good or sophisticated a director as Frears. (He made the grotesquely unfunny Muriel’s Wedding.) Yet My Best Friend’s Wedding doesn’t just move, it glides, eased along by the sense that nobody is taking any of it, especially the movie, seriously. If High Fidelity does move, it’s because Cusack, who’s often seen speaking directly into the camera in locations all over town, seems to be dragging his troubles with him around Chicago — troubles he and the movie take entirely too seriously. These scenes are as unpersuasive and awkward as Rob’s sartorial attempts at Lou Reed cool; they have none of the breeziness of shared secrets, but the heft of confession, and, as with much of the movie, grow tiresome fast. Two hours of narcissism are difficult to take, even when it’s John Cusack delivering the bad news.

Frears has had ups and downs, but here he’s stuck in neutral, with filmmaking as square as the story. Save for a cameo by Bruce Springsteen, who enters the film like a gift, there’s little to suggest that this movie is from the same man who directed My Beautiful Laundrette and Sammy and Rosie Get Laid. High Fidelity has none of the joyous pop verve of those earlier features, and none of the coiled intensity of Frears’ most successful Hollywood movies, Dangerous Liaisons and The Grifters, the sleek neo-noir in which Cusack played a con artist with a lethal Oedipus complex. As with Frears’ last film, The Hi-Lo Country, this new movie has a draggy, overextended vibe. Part of the problem is Cusack, whose obvious appeal has always worked a counterpoint to his low-key, reactive performance style. Cusack has ineffable charm, but he keeps it tuned at the lowest possible frequency. It’s that sense of modesty, real or feigned, that from Say Anything on has made him the type women want to end up with after getting burned or left on ice. Yet for all that, Cusack has never settled comfortably into the role of leading man — you get the feeling that the idea of taking up that kind of space and that kind of attention embarrasses him. He’s a reluctant hero, which is why he’s so good at playing bad, and why, after slipping into his character’s surliness here, he seems to have a hard time coming out again. Or maybe it’s just that Cusack is as skeptical of Rob’s impending happy ending as we are.

HIGH FIDELITY | Directed by STEPHEN FREARS | Written by D.V. DEVINCENTIS, STEVE PINK, JOHN CUSACK and SCOTT ROSENBERG Based on the novel by NICK HORNBY | Produced by TIM BEVAN and RUDD SIMMONS | Released by Touchstone Pictures | Citywide

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