director – Stephen Frears
script – D V DeVicentis, Steve Pink, John Cusack, Scott Rosenberg, adapted from the novel by Nick Hornby
cinematographer – Seamus McGarvey
stars – John Cusack, Iben Hjejle
John Cusack fans will love High Fidelity, just as John Cusack haters will hate it. I’m somewhere in the middle – though I’d never go out of my way to see one of Cusack’s films, I find him agreeable enough, preferably in smallish doses. Cusack (born 1966) appeals to those who are uncomfortable with the Marlon Brando virtuosity of Sean Penn (1960), the megawatt Michael Jackson glossiness of Tom Cruise (1962), or the John Garfield edginess of Matt Dillon (1964). He’s not as good an actor as the first, not as big a star as the second, and not as good looking as the third – but combines elements of all three, adding a dash of his own puppydog sweetness. His character in this movie sees himself as ‘a middleweight,’ which strikes me as an accurate description of both Cusack the actor and the film itself, which never aims any higher than the level of a pleasant enough distraction. A middleweight star, a middleweight script based on Nick Hornby’s middleweight novel, competently helmed by a middleweight director.
Box office returns in the US have also been respectably MOR – just as Woody Allen’s movies tend to take between five and ten million, Cusack’s starring vehicles have a fairly well defined ceiling and floor, somewhere in the region of twenty to twenty five, regardless of whether the film is as pedestrian as a Grosse Pointe Blank, or as stupendous as a Being John Malkovich. It’s typical of Cusack that his biggest box office hit to date, Con Air, is the one everybody always forgets he’s even in.
There’d be no danger of such a lapse with High Fidelity, of course, as Cusack’s Rob Gordon is hardly ever off camera – and even when we can’t see him, he’s there doing a voiceover, reading out large chunks of the source novel. Voice-over and speaking-to-camera are tricky feats, but Cusack’s identification with his character enables him to nimbly pull it off here. The whole film is seen from the point of view of Rob, a thirtysomething record shop owner in Chicago who has just been dumped by girlfriend Laura (Hjejle), an event which sets him off reminiscing about previous relationships – with Catherine Zeta Jones, Lili Taylor, etc.
The film alternates between Rob’s romantic retrospection and a series of more down-to-earth comic interludes in the record shop featuring his employees Barry (a boorish Jack Black) and Dick (a timorous Todd Louiso). Although Frears occasionally allows Black’s exuberance to tip over into ham, the shop sequences – we’re thankfully a long way from Empire Records – are the best things in the film as the trio of muso snobs compile top-five lists of their favourite tracks, patronise their unfortunate customers and bicker over pop culture trivia – though at one point the script has them implausibly confusing Evil Dead II and III. The shop is also the setting of the film’s one comic knockout, when a visit from Laura’s new boyfriend Ian (Tim Robbins, in yet another obnoxious cameo) sets off Rob fantasising on violent revenge.
The record shop scenes’ freshness – the book’s musical references have been updated to cover such current indie stars as Belle & Sebastian and The Beta Band – stands in contrast to the relatively hackneyed treatment of Rob’s love life, typified by Frears’ lazy recourse to pathetic fallacy when Rob ends up miserable and rain-drenched on a park bench. In addition, the ‘top five break-ups’ format means that the terrific Lili Taylor is woefully underused – unlike Cusack, she’s at her best when dominating a picture, and, as Pecker showed, she really isn’t cut out for supporting roles. Joan Cusack is also wasted as Laura’s best friend – her customary acerbic charm perhaps running contrary to the prevailing bitter-sweet tone of the male-dominated material.
That said, it’s hard to see how Hornby’s so-so novel could have been translated much more effectively to film. The controversial location switch from London to Chicago isn’t a problem – Chicago being as much of a muso city as the British capital – except perhaps in terms of the unchanged character names. There probably are Americans called Rob, Ian, Dick and Barry – but not in the same square mile, I’d guess.
by Neil Young
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