(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