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Dustin Putman

Dustin's Review
High Fidelity (2000)
2 Stars

Directed by Stephen Frears
Cast: John Cusack, Iben Hjejle, Jack Black, Todd Louiso, Joan Cusack, Tim=20 Robbins, Lisa Bonet, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Lili Taylor, Natasha Gregson Wagner, Sara Gilbert, Joelle Carter, Chris Rehmann, Ben Carr.
2000 – 113 minutes
Rated: Rated R (for profanity and sexual situations).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, April 1, 2000.

Boyish, commitment-shy thirtysomething Rob Gordon (John Cusack) stares at the screen and ponders, "Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable, or was I miserable because I listened to pop music?" And so begins "High Fidelity," directed by Stephen Frears (1988's "Dangerous Liasons") and based on the 1995 novel by Nick Hornby (which was set in London; the film in Chicago). Such a statement might come off as a throwaway one-liner, but through the course of the picture, it gradually grows to hold far more substance and truth than expected. An alternately insightful and uneasily thin-skinned look at relationships and true love, "High Fidelity" appears as if half the film was written by a screenwriter full of talent and intelligence, while the other scenes sprinkled throughout were penned by a hack who has never been in a relationship, or doesn't care to bring such veracity to the screen, just as long as he or she is receiving a sizable paycheck.

Rob, who has owned a vintage record store called Championship Vinyl for several years, has been through more romances with women than he cares to count, but no matter what, something always seems to get in the way of things working out. Rob is clueless as to what the problem might be, but he grows increasingly curious when his most recent long-time girlfriend, Laura (Iben Hjejle), leaves him and moves in with a womanizing hippie named Ian (Tim Robbins). Rob speaks directly to the screen for a large portion of its running time, and he triumphantly concludes when Laura leaves that she didn't even make his Top 5 Break-Ups List. Everything is a Top 5 List for Rob and his two coworkers, the surly, robustly sarcastic Barry (Jack Black), and the introverted, lonely Dick (Todd Louiso), and Rob sulks in his latest loss while he has flashbacks of his ex-flames from the past (including Catherine Zeta-Jones, Lili Taylor, and Joelle Carter). Through it all, Rob is determined to find out why fate has lent him such a discouraging romantic hand in life, until the moment when he inevitably discovers it has nothing to do with fate, and everything to do with himself. Oh, and he grudgingly must finally admit that Laura does, in fact, make his Top 5 List on the most painful break-ups.

Written by John Cusack, D.V. DeVincentis, and Steve Pink (the same team who brought us 1997's "Grosse Pointe Blank"), "High Fidelity" holds the same basic unevenness and dissatisfaction as their previous endeavor, despite clearly knowing how to write fresh dialogue. The problem with their screenplay is not in its details, but in its outline, which may hold a few perceptive ideas, but is brought down by its overall feelings of deja vu in the plot department, as well as in its severe mishandling of the wide array of characters.

Arriving on the film's second, and most notable, quandary, "High Fidelity" has been cast, for no apparent reason, almost top to bottom with familiar faces and stars, and then chooses to do nothing with them. Had the inconsequential supporting roles been filled by relative unknowns, this whole predicament might have been solved, but when a film completely wastes the talent of such exuberant actors, one must put blame on (1) the director, in this case Stephen Frears; (2) the sloppy, often aimless screenplay; and (3) the film as a whole, because you simply can't believe a movie would include Catherine Zeta-Jones, Lili Taylor, Tim Robbins, Joan Cusack, Lisa Bonet, Sara Gilbert, and Natasha Gregson Wagner, among others, only to throw them into the bedroom corner, left to hang out with the dust bunnies. The major cutting of particular characters, with the considerable rewriting of the rest of them, would have benefitted this film significantly, making the whole undertaking seem far more satisfying and not such a missed opportunity.

In a role he was born to play, John Cusack fully embodies the heart, soul, and skin of Rob Gordon. Cusack, of the puppy-dog-eyes ilk, believably exhibits Rob's oscillating desperation, his passion of music, his childish bravado. What the film fails to do, however, no fault of Cusack's performance, is get us to care about Rob as a person, or become involved in his lovelorn plight. Without his complete likability, which the picture relies vitally on to be successful, the much-needed rooting interest factor of the story is nonexistent.

Iben Hjejle, a Danish actress making her U.S. film debut here, equips herself with a dead-ringer American accent, and is, overall, very good, easily more effective than most foreign actors who give America a try, and fail (Virginie Ledoyen, of "The Beach," anyone?). Hjejle handles several subtle sequences in the latter half with impressionable aplomb and realism, especially one near the end in which Rob does something she never thought he would do. It must be noted, however, how odd it is that the one major female role has gone to a basic unknown, while the bigger stars are left hanging from the rafters--or, for film review purists, still playing with the dust bunnies in the corner.

Finally, the only other major roles have been handed to the marvelously funny Jack Black, and Todd Louiso, who, coincidentally, is more likable than Rob, and whose potentially warm-hearted subplot in which he unexpectedly romances a pretty, young customer named Anaugh (Sara Gilbert) is almost completely disregarded. As for the rest of the ill-fated cast, Catherine Zeta-Jones is entertaining, yet painfully shallow as Break-Up #3, the gorgeous Charlie Nicholson, who, Rob says, "was way out of my league." Lili Taylor, as Break-Up #4, the unlucky-in-love, desperate Sarah, might have been able to add some poignancy to the proceedings, had her one big scene been written with more care, rather than have been the rush job that it disappointingly is. Lisa Bonet is surprisingly good as alluring club singer Marie DeSalle, whom Rob has a one-time affair with after Laura moves out, but she exits the picture too soon. Joan Cusack, as Rob and Laura's friend, Liz, offers the same lightness of being that she always is able to bring to a film, but has nothing to do, while the less said about Tim Robbins' embarrassing cameo, the better. Finally, Natasha Gregson Wagner is truly fetching as Caroline, who shows up late in the picture as a music columnist for a Chicago-based magazine who briefly catches Rob's fancy. Wagner shows such promising signs, in fact, that it was a shame to see her be slighted, like everyone else, with a criminally underwritten character.

Since "High Fidelity" has just as much to do with music as it does with love, it has been inhabited from the first scene to the last with familiar, and not-so-familiar, tunes that span at least three or four decades. Unfortunately, so much care has been contributed to the soundtrack that director Frears has forgotten about the importance of the film itself. By the conclusion, Rob has learned a great deal about himself, and about his character flaws, to the point where he finally is able to assuredly enter into a relationship with maturity and recently obtained wisdom. It's too bad Frears didn't understand the title better; this film desperately needed higher fidelity to be a movie worth seeing.

©2000 by Dustin Putman

Dustin Putman