High Fidelity (2000)

D: Stephen Frears
S: John Cusack, Iben Hjejle

Spirited adaptation of Nick Hornby's novel following the fate of music store owner John Cusack (Grosse Pointe Blank) during a prolonged break-up with beautiful Iben Hjejle. Cusack, the eternal adolescent, ranks and rates everything in his life in top fives and tens like a trendy music magazine, and as he recounts the defining moments in his own life, he is eventually forced to face up to the fact that there's more to being a grown-up. The journey is not so intrinsically interesting that the script (written by a small committee including Cusack himself) would hold attention throughout. The decision to adapt first-person narration into a series of direct-to-camera monologues by the central character fortunately proves adequate compensation, and with the benefit of Cusack's performance, the film proves generally engaging. Viewers should be warned that this is not standard-issue feel-good material though, as many of the trenchant observations about masculinity, fidelity, commitment, and relationships hit harder than the genre usually permits. Though the film is also funny, it is not the kind of gag-and-punchline routine which some of the more energetic trailers suggest and which audiences frequently expect. It is also most definitely not a 'couples' movie, at least not if you're hoping for a spot of romance.

High Fidelity subjects its audience to a great deal of introspection and angst, never a good formula for light entertainment. Much of it concerns denial, specifically Cusack's attempt to rationalise away his relationship with his most recent girlfriend through exploring his past and re-visiting former lovers in search of catharsis. This provides a forum for lots of observational comedy (seen also recently in The Bachelor), but it is always tinged by a deeper melancholy as we, and he, realise that the only way around it is to understand that he's frozen in an adolescent world with adolescent ideas about just about everything. In this sense, while the film celebrates the world of record collectors and garage bands, it ultimately turns on the attainment of maturity by dint of leaving it all behind. This won't endear it to moody adolescents, for whom, ironically, the material will probably have the most resonance. Certainly all of the trendy references to indie bands and comments directed at people not in the know ultimately amount to a facade, and redemption comes not through trivia, but through the central character achieving a genuine connection with outside of his own egocentric, enclosed world.

The film's main strengths are in the performances. Director Stephen Frears has previously proven himself to be good at showcasing good casting (My Beautiful Laundrette,The Snapper), and though the film shows some canny sense of rhythm and rudimentary narrative drive, it does depend heavily on Cusack as its narrator and star. He holds the centre well, shows conviction in playing both the darker and more conflicted elements of his character, but is also as engaging as ever he has been (The Sure Thing, Bullets Over Broadway). He is offset by a series of entertaining cameos and small character roles for the likes of Tim Robbins (in an amusing Steven Seagal impersonation), Lisa Bonet (despite some Cosby Show gags), Catherine Zeta-Jones (radiant sending up a character who is all radiance), Lili Taylor (authentic as ever with just a touch of semi-comic desperation), Bruce Springsteen, and the inevitable Joan Cusack (the star's sister). Slightly larger roles played by Jack Black and Todd Louiso as Cusack's sidekick/employees make for an amusing double-act, with Black the exuberant, overweight one and Louiso the thin, nervy one... remind you of anything? Hjejle is also good as the inspiration for Cusack's change of character, but despite the film's central theme, it is difficult to see it as much more than a vehicle for Cusack himself, who excels.

High Fidelity is worth a look, but it is most definitely not one for devotees of the likes of Empire Records. Its outlook is adult though the tone oscillates, and it more or less successfully addresses the questions it asks of contemporary masculinity despite transplanting Hornby's novel from the UK to the US. It is not the most startling or original film you are likely to see this year, and not as peculiar as Grosse Pointe Blank, but it does reassert co-producer, co-writer and star John Cusack's status as one of the quirkier personalities in mainstream American film today and demonstrates his ability to affect the entire texture of a movie with his presence.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2000.