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'High Fidelity': Turn It Up

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 31, 2000

   


    'High Fidelity' John Cusack (middle) suffers from a broken heart in "High Fidelity." (Touchstone)
I walked into "High Fidelity" practically twitching with hostility.

How could they? I thought. How could they turn Nick Hornby's wonderfully entertaining English novel about a mopey, self-pitying record store owner into a crass Hollywood movie, set in Chicago, and starring John Cusack?

I slumped into my seat, determined to hate the movie. To my utter horror, I enjoyed myself immensely. Forget the book. If you liked it, remember it fondly as an orange while you crunch into this sweet, funny apple of a flick.

"High Fidelity" doesn't feel bad for one moment about not being British. Stephen Frears's adaptation, co-written by Cusack, is effortlessly and eccentrically American. And, as far as I'm concerned, this movie's a guaranteed pleasure for anyone who ever loved pop music, owned a record collection or suffered in love. Does that leave anyone out? I don't think so.

"Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable," wonders Rob Gordon (Cusack), at the beginning of the movie. "Or was I miserable because I listened to pop music?"

Gordon is a schlumpy, rumpled hipster who owns the Championship record store (actually, the sign reads "CHAMPIONS IP") in an unfrequented back street of Chicago. His store – snobbishly, defiantly and definitely unprofitably – sells vinyl only.

Rob and his nerdy assistants Barry (Jack Black) and Dick (Todd Louiso), spend their days reeling off pure record-junkie trivia. They can name all the bands Green Day stole their licks from. They can name their five all-time best pop songs about death, or breakups, or whatever.

And if they dislike the geek who just asked about a rare Velvet Underground album, they might not even sell it to him. This store isn't open for business so much as cool disdain.

Not to mention heartbreak. Rob's girlfriend Laura (Iben Hjejle) has just walked out on him. And, true to form, Rob (who addresses the camera frequently) is already assessing Laura's position on the all-time heartbreak list of his personal life.

At first, he's convinced Laura doesn't even break into the top five – that exclusive group that includes old flames Penny (Joelle Carter), Sarah (Lili Taylor) and that junior high-school girl who ditched him for another boy, just days after kissing him for the first time.

But, little by little, Rob realizes his obsession with Laura isn't going to quit. He can't even get excited about the gorgeous pop siren (Lisa Bonet) who practically throws herself at his feet. Laura just might be entering Rob's heartbreak charts at Number Five with a bullet. Could she climb higher?

This question – highly significant to Rob – makes him decide to look up all those heartbreakers of the past (including a funny Catherine Zeta-Jones as a self-obsessed former lover named Charlie) and interview them. Why did they leave him? What went wrong? And what does it say about Rob that they dumped him so easily?

As Rob, Cusack exudes the same comically depressed angst he shouldered in "Being John Malkovich." He makes despondency a riot as he tries to understand the triangulation of music, unhappiness and romantic loss that roils his life.

When Rob is not beating up on his damaged pride, he's spending hilarious time at the record store. Rob's associates are two sides of a strange coin. As Dick, Louiso is practically catatonic with shyness, a quiet little pop-appreciative machine. And as Barry, Black is a cantankerous, sarcastic creature who blisters anyone who dares to ask for a mainstream record. Angry at the fools who don't appreciate his wealth of pop arcana – which means just about everyone – he's a bundle of verbally ferocious energy. Frankly, whenever he's in the scene, he shoplifts this movie from Cusack.

"Oh, I'm so sorry," says Barry with mock chagrin when Rob chastises him for promoting the Championship record store too aggressively. "I didn't know that was classified information. I know we don't have any customers but I thought that was a bad thing."

Rob looks at Barry as he always does, with jaded disbelief. All Rob wants, after all, is a little peace and quiet, so he can spend the rest of his life licking those romantic wounds. But in this record store – an apt metaphor for the state of his life – there's little chance of that.

HIGH FIDELITY (R, 120 minutes) – Contains sexual situations and obscenity.

 

© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company


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