Noting that pop music is a lot about heartbreak, misery, and loss, Rob (John Cusack) addresses the movie audience directly and muses, "Do I like pop music because I’m miserable or am I miserable because I listen to pop music?"
The tone is thus set for High Fidelity, based on a popular novel by Nick Hornby, relocated from Hornby’s London to Chicago. Rob owns a funky record store where more time is spent creating "top five" song lists with his employees than actually selling the vinyl. (Indeed, in a performance that energizes the film whenever he’s on screen, Jack Black’s utter disdain for the rock ignorance of his customers becomes a funny running joke. He’s the ultimate rock elitist.)
Rob is being dumped by his current squeeze, Laura (Iben Hjejle), and the painful end to the affair precipitates some major soul-searching and a review of – you guessed it -the five top terminated romances in his life, starting back in grade school days. There are glimpses of moments from those relationships, featuring such talent as Lili Taylor and Catherine Zeta-Jones, but the focus remains tightly on Cusack, whose monologue to the audience forms the backbone of the film. It’s a well written and witty outpouring of words that traces Rob’s emotional and behavioral history and documents a growing self-realization of his failures at intimacy and commitment. (The word "love" seems to be missing from his vocabulary.) The monologue, too, is a comic take on the ways in which people load up their lovers with projections, expectations, illusions, and delusions – and the inevitable letdown that follows. That’s the subject matter of so many of those songs.
Cusack is a marvel, delivering lines at a rapid clip, comic timing just so, wryly introspective, and letting just enough of the underlying vulnerability show through to make it a rounded and believable portrayal. He’s got the physical plasticity to complement the intelligence that radiates from this performance; the guy has more facial muscles in his actor’s toolbox than most actors know they even possess, no less know how to use. Hjejle is a charmer, if not up to Cusack’s level – her lines on occasion are delivered with a disconcerting flatness. Playing against Cusack’s intensity, her character seems almost sedated; it’s a minor imbalance in a film that gets most of it right.
Todd Louiso plays Black’s fellow clerk at the store, a self-effacing nerd who is a perfect foil for Black’s assertiveness. Lisa Bonet is a sultry singer who uses Rob as a sex object, turning the tables for a change. Joan Cusack in a small role doesn’t get sufficient chance to flex her comic talents, but she is an always welcome presence on screen. Tim Robbins has a cameo as a smarmy, pony-tailed new age lawyer; he’s there to provide a target for the guys in the store and the results get one of the biggest laughs of the show.
Seamlessly and creatively directed by Stephen Frears, the film has clarity and cogency as it switches back and forth in time. Thematically placed in the heart of pop culture, High Fidelity delivers a sense of contemporary hipness, at the same time fitting squarely in the classic mold of romantic comedy films. It’s You’ve Got Mail with the sentiment and cutesy-ness removed, updated for a younger generation and shifted to a more appropriate retail venue. It’s damn good fun.