Screenplay : D.V. DeVincentis & Steve Pink & John Cusack and Scott Rosenberg (based on the novel by Nick Hornby)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2000
Stars : John Cusack (Rob Gordon), Iben Hjejle (Laura), Todd Louiso (Dick), Jack Black (Barry), Lisa Bonet (Marie DeSalle), Catherine Zeta-Jones (Charlie), Joan Cusack (Liz), Tim Robbins (Ian), Chris Rehmann (Vince), Ben Carr (Justin), Lili Taylor (Sarah), Joelle Carter (Penny)
"High Fidelity" is a film that never really seems to be going anywhere in particular because it's not specifically about a plot. Granted, there are carefully defined characters and the action moves forward through a series of cause-and-effect links, but it doesn't feel forced or prefabricated like so many other film narratives. Instead, it bounces along the rhythms of normal existence, which often include meandering routes and a great deal of musing over seemingly inconsequential details.
One of the major themes moving throughout "High Fidelity" is the complex yet seemingly asinine art of ranking inconsequential details into a hierarchy that eventually becomes a system through which we might define existence. In other words, ranking anything and everything into top five lists (perhaps this is why so many critics have taken a shine to the film, since the ordering of films into various hierarchies of importance is one of our primary occupations). This theme of ranking anything and everything is introduced early in the film, when the protagonist, a used-record store owner named Rob (John Cusack), begins enumerating his top five most painful break-ups after losing his most recent girlfriend, Laura (Danish actress Iben Hjejle).
"High Fidelity" is a nuanced comedy about the adult male as perpetual adolescent. It is, essentially, about the process of Rob finally growing up. At the beginning of the film, he is a case of arrested development. In his late 20s, Rob still views romance through the immature lens of a high school senior, where he can never quite get situated with a girl until she leaves him, and then he is heartbroken and crushed, not so much because of the loss of that particular person, but simply because he cannot understand why someone would reject him (again). The device of taking us through his history of dating by showing each of Rob's five worst break-ups is interesting because it gives us context through which we can understand what he is going though when Laura leaves him, which is essentially the heart of the story.
Of course, Rob is not the most sympathetic protagonist (it's quite easy to see why so many women leave him), yet he is also imminently likable. Much of this is due to the presence of John Cusack in the role; since his earliest teen roles in films like "Better Off Dead" (1985) and "Say Anything" (1989), Cusack has been the rarest of all Hollywood creations: the human movie star. No matter what role he plays, Cusack has a way of bringing the character down to earth and giving him the texture and feel of an actual human being. This is especially true of Rob, who is allowed an particularly intimate rapport with the audience in that he delivers long monologues directly to the viewer, effectively breaking down the fourth wall and inviting the audience into the film. It's a risky ploy, but here it works brilliantly because Cusack is so at ease with the device.
The film is populated by a wide variety of fascinating characters, including the two guys who work at Rob's store, the hopelessly introverted and inarticulate Dick (Todd Louiso) and his polar opposite, the obnoxiously loud and completely uninhibited Barry (Jack Black). Dick and Barry spend most of the film bantering about rock music minutiae, such as a developing a list of the top five rock albums with the best first track. This gives the film a feisty edge in that it displays an almost surreal knowledge of pop culture, but it also grounds the characters in that there are fans of popular culture who spend a great deal of time engaged in precisely this kind of activity, which then spills over into the rest of their lives.
While "High Fidelity" is a comedy, it is also a moving story about modern romance. It is not sappy or contrived in any way; instead, it presents its characters as flawed humans who make mistakes, but deserve second chances. Rob matter-of-factly informs us of some of the mistakes he made in his relationship with Laura, and she is not much better, having taken up a relationship with a pony-tailed self-help guru named Ian (played in an amusing cameo by Tim Robbins). In the end, we want Rob and Laura to get back together simply because they come across as real people, which is all too rare in the movies.
The film was based on a 1995 novel by Nick Hornby, and the location has been seamlessly transplanted from London to Chicago. The screenwriters, D.V. DeVincentis, Steve Pink, John Cusack, and Scott Rosenberg, take large chunks of the book and use it verbatim in the film, and it works because of the intimate connection between Rob and the audience via his direct dialogue.
The director, Stephen Frears, plays it loose and light. He doesn't put any pressure on the narrative flow; rather, he allows it to play itself out by its own rules. Parts of the film seem to ramble on without much purpose, but it all ties back together in the end because it has the flow and feel of real life, rather than the hurried pace of something that has been written to reflect life.
©2000 James Kendrick