Patrick (2018)


All dressed up and nowhere to go.

(2018) Family (Screen Media) Beattie Edmondson, Ed Skrein, Tom Bennett, Emelia Jones, Emily Atack, Cherie Lunghi, Peter Davison, Jennifer Saunders, Gemma Jones, Bernard Cribbins, Adrian Scarborough, Meera Syal, Milanka Brooks, Scott Chambers, Rupert Holliday-Evans, McKell David, Roy Hudd, Maria Barr, Rosie Ede, Olivia Buckland, Elena Valdameri. Directed by Mandie Fletcher

 

In the interest of full disclosure, I’m a well-known dog nut. Not merely a dog lover, but a dog nut, one who talks incessantly about my four-legged family members, who dotes on their every whim, and who would rather spend an evening cuddling with them rather than just about everything else. It does occasionally drive Da Queen batty.

Therefore, take the following review with a grain of salt as I will state outright that my objectivity goes right out the window when it comes to dog movies. In this one, Patrick is an adorable pug who is spoiled rotten by his wealthy, elderly owner. When she collapses while taking him for a walk and dies, his despair is palpable. But oddly, Patrick is bequeathed not to the exceptional, successful granddaughter nor to the equally wealthy son but to Sarah (Edmondson), the ne’er-do-well, disorganized hot mess of a granddaughter who can never arrive anywhere on time, not even granny’s funeral.

For Sarah, the “inheritance” couldn’t come at a worse time. She is stuck in an apartment after her latest in a long line of beaus has dumped her, leaving her in a neighborhood where she knows nobody in a flat that has a strict no pets policy which wasn’t an issue initially because Sarah hates dogs and she’s not terribly good with people either. She’s just starting a new job as a high school English teacher and she’s eager to make a good impression so that she’ll be kept on for next term. Patrick, used to having the run of the palace gets separation anxiety early and often and seems bound and determined to alert the landlord to his presence, destroy all of Sarah’s things and leave poop bombs for Sarah to step in or piddle puddles to slip on.

Naturally, she falls in love with the adorable little dog. It doesn’t hurt that through Patrick, she is introduced to Ben (Bennett), a stable and kindly man who loves dogs nearly as much as I and Oliver (Skrein), a handsome hunk of a veterinarian. He also helps her get through to her unruly class and preaches the joys of healthy living and exercising. Well, not so much preaches but allows her new mate Becky (Atack) to do the preaching; he just provides the opportunity, giving Sarah the excuse to go walkies in some lovely riverside parks throughout England.

There really isn’t a dramatic conflict here; the change from dog hater to devoted dog owner is a fairly seamless one and the film’s climax has to do with a fun run which she is physically unprepared for and whether or not she can complete it. Honestly, that’s it…so those film buffs among my readership might be excused if they want to give this one a pass. I do understand; as plots go this one is pretty much standard dog movie fare albeit one with lovely English settings.

Edmondson, best-known for Bridget Jones’ Baby over here, is an appealing lead who knows how to take a good prat fall. Some of her facial expressions are a bit over-the-top; subtlety might have benefited her performance more here but when you’re making a movie aimed at a certain demographic sometimes grand gestures and over-the-top facial mugging can be called for. I’ve never understood why. She is well-supported by a fairly impressive list of British thespians, including Cherie Lunghi (Excalibur), Jennifer Saunders (Absolutely Fabulous), Skrein (Deadpool), Peter Davison (Dr. Who), Gemma Jones (Bridget Jones’ Diary) and Bernard Cribbins (The Railway Children).

Patrick the pug will absolutely melt your heart, especially when you see him in his dapper tux during the funeral sequence at the beginning of the film. Sure, he’s a handful and spoiled absolutely out of his gourd but any pug lover (I’m looking at you, Char and Adam) will tell you that they are among the most loyal and loving creatures in the canine firmament. This is something of a niche film; dog lovers (and dog nuts) are going to be beguiled by the pug while others may find its charm wasted on them. As a romantic comedy it is a bit of a non-starter while kids who are looking for something a bit more frenetic may be bored. In any case I don’t think this is especially a kids movie even though it is being marketed somewhat that way; there are no children in the movie other than a niece and nephew who make brief appearances here and there whenever Sarah is with family. Still, those who like to dress up their fur babies and have placards proclaiming “A House is Not a Home Without a Dog” in their homes will be absolutely enchanted.

REASONS TO SEE: Edmondson is an appealing lead.
REASONS TO AVOID: A very rote family film.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of dog poo humor and a bit of mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Edmondson is Saunders’s daughter in real life.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, iTunes, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/18/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 32% positive reviews: Metacritic: 28/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Beethoven
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
ROMA

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Begin Again


Can a song save your life?

Can a song save your life?

(2013) Romance (Weinstein) Mark Ruffalo, Keira Knightley, Hailee Steinfeld, Adam Levine, Catherine Keener, Cee Lo Green, Mos Def, James Corden, Marco Assante, Rob Morrow, Jennifer Li, Ian Brodsky, Shannon Maree Walsh, Mary Catherine Garrison, David Abeles, Jimmy Palumbo, Colin Love, Ron Voz, David Pendleton, Jasmine Hope Bloch, Sheena Colette. Directed by John Carney

Music has great restorative properties; studies have concluded that certain tones can stimulate the brain to produce endorphins. There are some therapists who use music to help those with depression and other emotional and mental challenges. Music can heal people, even people in the music business.

In a Greenwich Village bar on an open mike night, Steve (Corden), an ex-pat Brit is playing guitar and singing his song. He invites a friend onstage, but Greta (Knightley) isn’t very willing to go. In fact, she’s downright reluctant but with the patrons urging her on she finally goes up onstage. Thirty seconds into her song, they lose interest and resume their conversations and ordering drinks.

That is, except for one guy – Danny (Ruffalo), a middle aged former record executive who that afternoon had been fired from the record label he had started with his partner Saul (Def). Danny had been sinking into an alcoholic morass ever since his wife Miriam (Keener), a music journalist, had an affair with a colleague which provoked Danny into leaving him and his daughter Violet (Steinfeld). Violet has entered the sexual phase of teen angst and dresses provocatively to get attention, much to the horror of her dad and the indifference of her mom.

Greta isn’t without a backstory of her own. A Brit, she’d come to New York with her boyfriend Dave (Levine) who was also a musician but one that a major label had signed. His career trajectory was promising indeed and of course promptly he falls into an affair with Mim (Li), an assistant with the label. Greta had essentially booked her flight home and was staying the night in Steve’s tiny apartment which was how she wound up in the bar in the first place.

Maybe everyone in the bar hears a lifeless tune that sounds like every other folk-influenced song that seems to hold so much sway in alternative rock and pop these days but Danny hears something different. He hears an arrangement with violin, drums, bass, piano and backing vocals. He hears a song that has meaning and will inspire people. After having been on a cold streak for so long he finally hears something that he can work with.

At first Greta isn’t interested. She understandably just wants to go home. However, something about him is sincere. This is a man who needs fixing – as someone who needs fixing herself she can recognize the trait in others. Maybe they can fix each other. That going out on her own and making it as a musician would be a gigantic middle finger to her ex probably had its appeal as well.

Danny comes up with the idea of recording the album live outside of the studio in various outdoor locations in New York – the roof of a building, a subway station, rowing boats in Central Park – sounds kind of gimmicky but Danny uses Steve as an engineer to set up a mobile recording studio (not as hard as it sounds in this digital era) and assembles a band. For financial help, he uses one-time discovery Troublegum (Green) who realizes he owes his success to Danny and is willing to help him be successful once again.

Danny begins to reconnect with Violet who also bonds somewhat with Greta. Danny and Miriam are beginning to make reconciliation noises while back into Greta’s life comes Dave. Will they be able to go back to their past relationships with this new artistic synergy in place? Or will the past drag them down back to where they were before?

Carney also directed Once which may well be the best movie about songwriting and the redemptive power of music on those who write it and those who hear it ever made. Like in that movie, the actors do their own singing and to a large extent, their own playing. Knightley actually has a pretty pleasant voice although it isn’t remarkable. Levine, a veteran of Maroon 5 and a fixture on The Voice, has a kind of asshole role to play and he does surprisingly well, making the character somewhat sympathetic even though his behavior isn’t always the best. In fact, none of the characters here is perfect and all of them are subject to their own flaws at one point or another in the movie.

In fact, the music is pretty dang good here, surprisingly so. The music is mostly the work of Gregg Alexander, better known as the lead vocalist and songwriter for the New Radicals. While the film name checks (or tune checks) luminaries like Leonard Cohen, Hoagie Carmichael, Stevie Wonder and Sinatra, the bulk of the soundtrack is a folky poppy adult alternative that won’t offend anybody unless of course one is offended by folky poppy adult alternative music.

Ruffalo is always solid and while he hasn’t achieved the kind of status of a Tom Hanks or a Brad Pitt, he is nonetheless dependable for turning out good performances and he does the same here. Yeah, Danny has a few personality tics and he can be overbearing but you get the sense that his heart is in the right place – with his estranged wife and daughter. He knows he has some work to do on himself but given the right inspiration he might actually be able to get it all back. One roots for him to do just that.

While this isn’t to the level of Once, this is a better movie than a lot of the disappointing mid-summer films that are out in theaters currently and will certainly be worth having in your library once it makes it to home video. You might just find it in ours when the time comes.

REASONS TO GO: Ruffalo and Knightley had a different kind of chemistry that is strong in its own right. Great music.

REASONS TO STAY: May be too offbeat for some. A little bit fairy tale-esque.

FAMILY VALUES:  A fair amount of profanity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Knightley had to learn to play the guitar for her role and her husband, musician James Righton, offered to teach her but his lessons proved to be so atrocious that, in her own words, “they nearly led to divorce and murder,” but the couple remain happily married to date.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/23/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 81% positive reviews. Metacritic: 62/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Once

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: 22 Jump Street

A Million Ways to Die in the West


Only Charlize Theron knows what to do with the hordes of film critics who have turned their venom loose on this movie.

Only Charlize Theron knows what to do with the hordes of film critics who have turned their venom loose on this movie.

(2014) Western Comedy (Universal) Seth MacFarlane, Charlize Theron, Giovanni Ribisi, Amanda Seyfried, Neil Patrick Harris, Sarah Silverman, Liam Neeson, Christopher Hagen, Wes Studi, Matt Clark, Evan Jones, Aaron McPherson, Rex Linn, Brett Rickaby, Alex Borstein, Ralph Garman, John Aylward, Gilbert Gottfried, Ewan McGregor, Christopher Lloyd, Ryan Reynolds. Directed by Seth MacFarlane

During the 1950s, Americans tended to idealize the Old West. Rugged cowboys rode the range, rescued pretty school marms from bandits and varmints, and generally saved the day with an “aw, shucks” modesty. Cowboys were real men, Indians were the enemy and things were pretty simple. Of course, it wasn’t really like that.

The Old West was in reality a brutal place where arguments were solved with guns, violence was rampant, sanitation was next to impossible and the only thing worse than contracting a disease was going to the doctor to get it cured. Albert (MacFarlane), a sheep farmer in hole-in-the-wall Old Stump, Arizona, knows it better than most. He is the sort of guy who would rather negotiate than fight, which makes him yellow in the Old West. That’s fine and dandy with Albert. He’d much rather be a live coward than a dead hero.

His girlfriend Louise (Seyfried) doesn’t necessarily agree with that philosophy. After a humiliation after being challenged to a gunfight, Louise decides she’s had enough and dumps Albert in favor of Foy (Harris), a successful shop owner who caters to moustache owners. Albert is devastated. Louise was one of the only things worth staying in the West for. San Francisco would be a much better place for him, much to the disdain of his father (Hagen). His close friends Edward (Ribisi) and Ruth (Silverman) commiserate but they have problems of their own. For one, they’ve been together and they want to have sex, but also want to wait until they get married and keep their purity. Until then, Ruth will continue working as a prostitute to help save up enough to get married. Yeah, it’s that kind of movie.

Into his life waltzes Anna (Theron), a gorgeous blonde who is new in town. She also happens to be a crack shot and when Albert loses his temper and challenges Foy to a gunfight, she offers to help Albert work on his marksmanship. Of course, they soon develop into something more than friends even though Albert still wants to win Louise back. However, Anna might have forgot to mention that she’s married – to Clinch Leatherwood (Neeson), one of the most vicious and deadliest gunfighters in the West.

The title is apt. MacFarlane’s character constantly grouses throughout about how dangerous it is out in the West and throughout the film people get killed by wild animals, shot by ornery bandits, crushed by blocks of ice and in a memorable sequence, fart themselves to death.

Fans of MacFarlane’s TV show Family Guy will no doubt feel right at home here. However, it should be said that the humor is pushes the envelope HARD and there are some things that you’re going to find offensive, like the shooting gallery gag that also serves as the fodder for an after-the-credits scene with a surprise cameo appearance. In fact, there are a ton of cameos to keep an eye out for.

Otherwise, this is one of those movies that throws as many jokes as it can into the mix and sees which ones you find funny and which ones you don’t. When the comedy works here, it’s sidesplitting. When it doesn’t, it’s groan-inducing. Fortunately, it works more than not.

MacFarlane is an appealing lead, although his character is a kind of neurotic nebbish, sort of like Woody Allen in chaps. MacFarlane, who co-wrote as well as directed and starred in this, has the characters act in fairly modern idioms, which allows 2014 audiences to relate better to the action in some ways while others might find this anachronistic and off-putting. It is part of the humor to hear someone from 1882 say “Oh, snap!” although again, there was some sniffing from critical quarters.

The supporting cast isn’t a bunch of straight men (and women) to MacFarlane as a lot of modern comedies tend to do; they all have their funny moments which you would want from a cast of talented actors like this. Only Neeson seems to be playing it straight, although he does give Clinch an outrageous Lucky Charms Irish accent which apparently he insisted upon before taking the part. I don’t know if a gunslinger with an Irish brogue rates laughs but okay.

MacFarlane references other Western comedies, notably Blazing Saddles and Django Unchained (which isn’t, strictly speaking, pure comedy) directly and otherwise. He makes use of Utah’s Monument Valley (subbing for Arizona) with some nifty cinematography, graphics and score right out of a 1950s epic screen Western. Visually speaking, he’s got the Western part down. However, the story doesn’t really support the length of the film and I got a little bit fidgety there towards the end.

This hasn’t been getting good reviews and I’ve also read some comments from non-reviewers that expressed how offended they were at this movie. There are those who tolerate offensive humor more than others and if you’re one of the others it wouldn’t be a good idea for you to check this out. I don’t think this is as good as MacFarlane’s previous movie Ted but that movie had its share of squirm-inducing moments. Use that as your guide as to whether you should see it or not. This isn’t for everybody, but the people that it is are going to love it.

REASONS TO GO: When it’s funny, it’s hysterical. Fun concept.

REASONS TO STAY: Overkill. Runs about 20 minutes too long. Those who don’t tolerate profanity and sex very well should stay the fuck away.

FAMILY VALUES: A cornucopia of profanity and sexual innuendo, some violence and drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Theron wore a wig throughout the shooting because she had shaved her head for the filming of Mad Max: Fury Road.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/3/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 33% positive reviews. Metacritic: 44/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Blazing Saddles

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Maleficent

Admission


Two people who know just how cute they are.

Two people who know just how cute they are.

(2013) Romantic Comedy (Focus) Tina Fey, Paul Rudd, Lily Tomlin, Nat Wolff, Michael Sheen, Gloria Reuben, Wallace Shawn, Michael Genadry, Christopher Evan Welch, Sarita Choudhury, Rob Campbell, Sonya Walger, Olek Krupa, Travaris Spears, Camille Branton. Directed by Paul Weitz

Getting into a good school can make all the difference in life. Princeton University, as one of the best schools in the nation, has to rigorously check potential students, culling out the wheat to get to the chaff. Looking for the best and the brightest isn’t always easy.

Portia Nathan (Fey), as one of Princeton’s top admissions officers, has that unenviable task. The simple math is that there are far more applicants than there are open spots so much of what she does is telling young students that their application has been declined.

This year it’s particularly vital because the director of admissions (Shawn) is stepping down at the end of the year and he doesn’t want to go out as number two, which Princeton has fallen to for the first time in years. His position will go to either Portia or Corinne (Reuben), her supercilious rival. Portia, whose territory is the northeast, is given the directive to find some new blood from schools not normally associated with Princeton.

Then she gets a call from John Pressman (Rudd), a former classmate at Dartmouth with Portia who knew her roommate well. He’s got a progressive school called Quest Academy in New Hampshire and has a student he’s particularly high on that might make a nice addition to Princeton’s student body. He invites her to talk to the student body about the advantages of going to Princeton. Oh and by the way, the student in question – Jeremiah (Wolff) – may possibly be the child she gave up for adoption just after she graduated from college. Whoops.

Of course now this puts her maternal instincts on overdrive and her impartiality on vacation. In the meantime her personal life is in chaos as her longtime boyfriend (Sheen) has dumped her for a bitchy English professor (Walger) and her relationship with her goofy feminist mom (Tomlin) is pinballing around her life like a pachinko machine gone berserk. On top of that John is looking kinda cute and sexy, even though she tells herself she wants no part of him. Which of course means she does.

 

Weitz, who’s made some pretty nifty pictures in his time (including About a Boy and American Dreamz) doesn’t quite have that kind of material here. This is, to be honest, a pretty pedestrian story, full of your basic romantic comedy clichés. Fortunately, that’s not all it is – there’s a bit of satire on the higher education system and how cutthroat it has become. There’s also something about embracing the differences, and understanding that people are more than the sum of their parts.

Fey and Rudd make appealing leads and that should come to nobody’s surprise – they are two of the most likable actors in Hollywood. They are not only an attractive couple, they play off of each other well. Both of them are pretty low-key however; there is nothing frenetic here and so the movie has a curiously muted feel. I suspect Weitz didn’t want to play this strictly for comedy (despite casting comedic actors in nearly every role) and wanted a dramatic edge to it but it winds up really settling into a middle ground that is neither funny nor dramatic.

Tomlin makes the movie worth seeing alone. One of the greatest comedians of all time (male or female), she infuses Susannah with just enough grouchiness to be funny, but just enough tenderness to give her the potential for redemption. Tomlin is definitely the comedic highlight here, which I’m sure that Fey as a longtime admirer doesn’t mind.

I actually liked the movie overall – but I didn’t love it (obviously). I wish it had been written a little bit better – perhaps Fey, one of the better writers working today, should have had a hand in it. Having not read the novel that is the source material, I can’t say for certain whether the fault lies in the source material or the adaptation but either way the plot is far too predictable – one of the main twists was predicted by Da Queen early in the movie and not to say that Da Queen isn’t a savvy moviegoer (she is) but it shouldn’t have been that easy for anyone to get it. With the summer blockbusters just a month away from the theaters, this is probably easy to overlook and is just as viable a choice for home viewing as anything else out there.

REASONS TO GO: Nice chemistry between Fey and Rudd. Pleasant and charming in places.

REASONS TO STAY: Formulaic. Lacks big laughs. Is curiously lacking in energy.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s a bit of language and some sexuality but not a lot.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While some of the scenes were shot on the campus of Princeton, more of it was shot at Manhattanville College in Purchase, NY.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/2/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 42% positive reviews. Metacritic: 49/100; the reviews are mixed, trending a teensy bit to the negative.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Wanderlust

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: The Burning Plain

Zookeeper


Zookeeper

Kevin James talks to his target demographic.

(2011) Family (Columbia) Kevin James, Rosario Dawson, Leslie Bibb, Joe Rogan, Ken Jeong, Cher (voice), Nick Nolte (voice), Adam Sandler (voice), Sylvester Stallone (voice), Judd Apatow (voice), Jon Favreau (voice), Maya Rudolph (voice), Faizon Love (voice), Don Rickles (voice). Directed by Frank Coraci

 

There’s a Hollywood platitude that a smart actor never works with kids or animals. Of course if a career is going to have any longevity, it is inevitable that one will someday have to work with either or both. If you’re going to do a movie set in a zoo…well, be prepared to be upstaged.

Griffin Keyes (James) is a zookeeper who really loves his job. He enjoys interacting with the animals in his charge and cares very much about them. He is a kindly, genial sort who is also quite shy and a bit clumsy. He is trying to get over the rejection given him by Stephanie (Bibb), his ex who turned down his elaborate marriage proposal five years earlier. It devastated his self-confidence and led him to an existence with virtually no social life.

He has earned the respect of the zoo’s veterinary zoologist Kate (Dawson) who sympathizes with his plight. Stephanie had dumped him because he was a zookeeper, someone with a limited income and limited possibilities. Of course Stephanie is a shallow materialistic individual that has no business with guy like Griffin anyway but Griffin doesn’t see that.

He has a chance to win her back, even though she’s seeing an ex-boyfriend named Gale (Rogan) who is as mean and as shallow as she is. The animals, thinking that Griffin will leave them unless he finds a girl in town who will keep him there, decide to give Griffin dating advice so that he can win the girl.

Of course, this unnerves Griffin more than a little bit. It turns out however that animals can in fact talk and just choose not to because it freaks out the humans when they do. Griffin particularly bonds with Bernie the Gorilla (Nolte) who is depressed. Griffin cheers him up (by taking him to a TGI Fridays of all places) and the two become best friends. No comment on being the best friend of a primate, please.

Of course Griffin must eventually make  a choice between Stephanie and a life as a successful car salesman and Kate and a life as a humble zookeeper. I’m sure you’ll be able to guess which way the wind blows on this one.

The movie got critically panned during its release last year and it made a few “Worst film of the year” lists which I think is a bit harsh. Certainly there are some misfires here.

Casting James isn’t one of them. He is one of the most likable actors working in Hollywood and it’s hard not to root for him, even if his romantic leads of Bibb and Dawson don’t seem to be the types who would fall for pudgy older men. Of course, as a pudgy older man I have some experience in this.

The problem here is mostly with the zoo animals. They were matched with celebrity stunt voice casting which might have pulled a few bodies into the theater at the time but the CG was a little bit rough and the voices don’t always go with the animals really well.

Worse still, I get the sense that this was a movie that wanted to pull in an adult audience but the studio was aiming for a family audience and we got jokes that fell somewhere in-between. Some of the jokes were probably a bit much for kids, and others a bit dumbed down for their parents. Try to please everybody and you wind up pleasing nobody, and that statement is never truer than it is here.

There is some heart and charm and it shows through at unexpected times. Dawson does a great job as being the girlfriend everyone wants to have – just like in Clerks 2. She reminds me a little bit of Meg Ryan in that regard; she has a big future in romantic comedies in my opinion. Kevin James is also pleasant to watch.

And that really sums up the movie in a nutshell. It’s pleasant but not particularly memorable. You won’t hate it while you’re watching it but you won’t love it either. It’s just kinda…there. Your kids might get a kick out of the talking animals but something tells me that it won’t be enough for them to put it on their regular viewing list.

WHY RENT THIS: James is plenty likable and Dawson is the girlfriend every guy wants.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The animals don’t quite work out so well and the humor is mostly either too over the heads of kids or too dumbed down for adults.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is some rude humor, a little bit of innuendo and some mildly bad words. Still acceptable for nearly all audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: James Hong, who voiced noodle shop owner Mr. Ping, is the son of an actual noodle shop owner.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a gag reel and an in-depth look at the creation of Bernie the Gorilla in physical effects. The Blu-Ray also contains a playable demo for a Sony Playstation 3 Game.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $169.9M on an $80M production budget; the movie basically made back its production budget during its theatrical run.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: House on Haunted Hill (1999)

High Fidelity


High Fidelity

This is my movie and these are my people.

(2000) Romance (Touchstone) John Cusack, Iben Hjejle, Todd Louiso, Jack Black, Lisa Bonet, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Joan Cusack, Tim Robbins, Chris Rehmann, Ben Carr, Lili Taylor, Joelle Carter, Natasha Gregson Wagner, Sara Gilbert, Bruce Springsteen. Directed by Stephen Frears

 

John Cusack is one of those actors who is quirky, engaging, charming, occasionally irascible but always interesting to watch. In short, a young Jack Nicholson. From time to time, Cusack will produce small-budget films on his own that are generally paid for by his appearances in big-buck extravaganzas such as Con Air. Like Cusack himself, these less fiscally ambitious movies are nearly always quirky yet endearing and generally include his sister Joan in some capacity (see Grosse Pointe Blank).

In High Fidelity he plays Rob Gordon, who owns an eclectic record store in Chicago that actually sells records, and by that I mean vinyl. The store specializes in classic rock and soul and indie rock. Gordon has just broken up with his girlfriend Laura (Hjejle), who left him to take up with a New Age ex-hippie named Ian (Robbins). While Gordon’s store employees – the loud, rude and opinionated Barry (Black) and the soft-spoken music nerd Dick (Louiso) – try to keep the store running (such as it does; the store is nearly broke), Gordon is busy trying to figure out why he keeps getting dumped.

A compulsive list-maker, Gordon seeks out the girlfriends responsible for his top five worst breakups in an effort to discover why they chose someone else over him.

Cusack imbues Gordon with complexity. He yearns for stability and contentment, but always sabotages himself with the wrong impulses just when those goals seem attainable. Moody, temperamental, a musical snob and more than a little bit of a jerk, Gordon is nonetheless sympathetic. He admires excellence (particularly in music) and champions the underdog without fail, which is why he sells vinyl, a sort of Don Quixote of music retail. He smokes compulsively, talks to the camera like it’s a confessional and plunges into all situations without fear. It may sound awful on paper, but Cusack is likable enough to pull it off.

To his advantage, Cusack surrounds himself with a great cast. Black and Louiso are hysterical as his employees. Sister Joan is her usual acerbic self as a mutual friend to the estranged couple. Robbins shows flair as the new boyfriend. Catherine Zeta-Jones is lustrous in an uncredited cameo as Charlie (one of Cusack’s top five)and indie film queen Taylor, as another one of Cusack’s list, lends cachet. Bruce Springsteen even cameos as himself, displaying a heretofore unrevealed knack for the craft.

This was pretty much Jack Black’s break-out performance. It was from here that he went on to get leading roles and it’s easy to see why. His on-screen charisma is simply astonishing here. He steals nearly every scene he’s in, culminating in a stunning performance of Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get it On” in the final reel. He’s manic, hysterically funny and infectious in this role which has to be considered one of the best performances of his career.

As a rock critic for an independent alternative weekly for six years, I can tell you that this is MY film and these are my people. Director Stephen (Dangerous Liaisons) Frears wisely lets Cusack take center stage, letting the rest of the performers play off him and build their performances off of him. Cusack takes up a ton of screen time – he’s in almost every scene – so if he’s not your cup of tea, you should probably pass on this one. Still, there are some great laughs herein (particularly the scene in which Cusack and Robbins meet face-to-face in the record store), a lot of insight into why we mess up our relationships, and an awesome soundtrack, much of which was selected for the film by Cusack himself.

The film began life as a novel by Nick Hornby (from whose pen also spawned About a Boy). That was set originally in Hornby’s native London but was transplanted to Chicago by Cusack who co-wrote the script. I think the shift works really well; the action seems germane to the Windy City setting and one gets a sense of life among Midwestern hipsters. Chicago has always been a center for musical trendsetting and separate from L.A. or New York is a far more grounded location, making for more down-to-earth kind of realism rather than a boatload of trendies struggling to be the first to the Next Big Thing.

High Fidelity didn’t do killer box office, but it shouldn’t be overlooked among the wave after wave of teen sex comedies, self-indulgent Oscar leftovers, event movies and niche films that populate the video store. It’s a well-written, enjoyable movie that will be on your mind long after you turn off the TV slash computer slash smart phone.

WHY RENT THIS: Killer soundtrack. Fine script and excellent performances by Black, Louiso, Hjejle and both Cusacks. Some laugh-out-loud moments.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: If you don’t like Cusack you won’t like this.

FAMILY MATTERS: There’s some sexuality and a lot of four-letter words.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The location of Rob’s store Championship Vinyl used to be a Wax Trax record store, the retail outlet for the influential Chicago-based Industrial and Punk label.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $47.1M on a $30M production budget; the movie lost money.

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT: Wanderlust