In Stephen Frears's new comedy High Fidelity, leading man John Cusack is forever looking the camera (and us) in the eye and explaining what's wrong with him today, or why he was unhappy yesterday, or how his first girlfriend dumped him back in the seventh grade. Gazing into the lens, there's almost nothing about himself that he won't openly discuss, from his romantic traumas to his list of Top Five Dream Jobs to his tiresomely complete knowledge of pop music. Director Frears's presumption here, of course, is that this hero, an unhinged Chicago record-store owner named Rob Gordon, is sufficiently fascinating that the audience will want to be in on his every confession, to behold every quirk, to see every wart. This is the age, after all, the time when cross-dressing policemen must tell all to Jerry Springer and nuns with coke habits go on Sally Jessy Raphael, when bartenders, car dealers and farmers' wives publish their memoirs. So even the rather ordinary story of a rather ordinary, self-absorbed twentysomething who can't break the shackles of adolescence gets its allotted fifteen minutes of you know what.
The strange thing is how well Frears and Cusack pull off the trick. I don't know if they've captured the uneasy spirit of a generation, or the pop zeitgeist, or even the weather in Chicago, but their rather immodest method -- akin to demanding that we watch a baby play in his crib for a couple of hours -- eventually bears fruit. The kvetching, whining, solipsistic Rob manages to win our hearts (if not at first, then later) precisely because there's no stone in his life he won't turn over, no dirty little secret he won't tell. For better or worse, complete candor wins the day. Bill Clinton would do well to run this one in the White House screening room.
When first we see him, our Rob finds himself in what you might call a state of suspended desolation. His latest live-in girlfriend, a sleek lawyer named Laura (Danish beauty Iben Hjejle), is leaving him, and by the downward cast of his puppy-dog eyes we can tell this has happened before. Indeed, Rob wastes no time in regaling us with the gruesome details of the Top Five All Time Breakups in his life (the man is addicted to lists). Then he trudges off to work at Championship Vinyl, the kind of hip-grungy neighborhood record store where the obsessed customers will cough up forty bucks for long-lost albums by obscure groups. This is Rob's cocoon, the place where he can avoid the ambiguities and commitments of real life in favor of dreaming up the Top Five Side One First Tracks of All Time, or the Top Five Songs for Letting the Person Who Dumped You Know That Even Though They Broke Your Heart You Can't Get Over Them. His partners in these useless exercises are his two clerks, a shy introvert named Dick (Todd Louiso) and a manic rock snob named Barry (Jack Black), who throws customers out of the store because they have what he judges to be bad taste.
Black's snits and fits can be hilarious, but it's Rob's dark comic brooding that's supposed to keep us watching. In the words of his most pretentious ex-girlfriend, Charlie (Catherine Zeta-Jones), he's suffering through "one of those what-does-it-all-mean things." No midlife crisis, this, but a kind of postgraduate, pre-marriage swoon by a guy who doesn't quite get it. One of Rob's regrets is that he wasn't a rock critic for Rolling Stone in the late '70s; another is that, as a thinker and a person, he's at best a "middleweight." His favorite book, after all, is Johnny Cash's autobiography. Trapped between the refuge of adolescence and the frights of adulthood, he flounders, then begins to find the way. "I'm tired of the fantasy," he says at last. "It never really delivers."
Sound vaguely familiar? Maybe if you just bought your first new car. Teen angst is still a hot ticket at the box office, but High Fidelity may test the market for Trauma Just Under Thirty. No fewer than four screenwriters -- D.V. DeVincentis and Steve Pink (who collaborated on Grosse Point Blank), actor Cusack and Scott Rosenberg -- have transplanted Nick Hornby's popular novel from London to Chicago with a minimum of fuss, and Frears (who directed Cusack in 1990's surpassing neo-noir hit The Grifters) injects the proceedings with his usual sly wit. Meanwhile, the director and music supervisor Kathy Nelson stack dozens of appropriate tunes onto the soundtrack -- everything from Dylan's "Tonight I'll Be Staying Here With You" to "Dry the Rain" by the Beta Band to "Everybody's Gonna Be Happy" by the Kinks. Even if no one wants to see the movie, the CD could go platinum.
On the other hand, this study of a man-child lost in the dark gives off enough wiseass charm to keep us interested, and Cusack (late of Cradle Will Rock and Being John Malkovich) invests Rob Gordon with real comic tenderness. He's also enlisted a couple of friends: Bruce Springsteen pops up in a comic cameo complete with electric guitar, and Tim Robbins, who directed Cusack in Cradle, drops in to play a small but juicy bit as the departed Laura's insufferable new boyfriend. He's worth the price of a ticket.
In conclusion, The Five Top Qualities of a Movie That Otherwise Might Have Been Completely Self-Indulgent: 1. Smart writing; 2. Great tunes; 3. Jokes keep audience off-balance; 4. Cusack wins new friends; 5. Male foibles exposed.
What more could you ask for?
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