Rated R - Running Time: 1:53 - Released 3/31/00

With the advent of rock and roll music around the mid-20th century, there emerged a culture that could perhaps best be described as "pop junkies." Mostly males, this group spent their time hanging around record stores, listening to the newest output from whatever bands they fancied, learning tons of virtually useless information (now known as "trivia"), and compiling lists of their favorites, much to the bafflement of their female friends. I know this because I was one. And it is such a person who is the main character of High Fidelity, a humorously philosophical and pop-music-soaked study of the romantic relationship as seen through the eyes of a music geek. The writers, producers, and star of the similarly engaging Grosse Pointe Blank (D.V. DeVincentis, Steve Pink, John Cusack) have joined forces with British director Stephen Frears (Dangerous Liaisons, Mary Reilly) for this hilarious and thought-provoking treatise, based on the book by Nick Hornby.

The first thought expressed by Rob Gordon (Cusack), sitting in front of his stereo with his headphones on even as his girlfriend Laura (Iben Hjejle) packs her things to leave him, is "Do I listen to pop music because I'm miserable, or am I miserable because I listen to pop music?" This is the kind of deep thought that permeates the film, explored not only by Rob but by his employees at his vintage record store. There's Barry (Jack Black), a conceited, openly rude, holier-than-thou would-be critic who dares anyone, including potential customers, to disagree with his tastes. And there's Dick (Todd Louiso), a quiet geek who is nonetheless a fountain of information that sometimes even outshines Barry and Rob. Knowing better than to consult them about his girl trouble (although they tend to offer their advice anyway), Rob decides to ask all his "top five" ex-girlfriends why he is so prone to being dumped.

Continually negotiating with Laura about reconciliation, and enduring alternately the advice and reproach of his sister Liz (Joan Cusack, John's real-life sister), Rob contacts high school and college girlfriends (Joelle Carter and Catherine Zeta-Jones), and a woman with whom he shared a co-dependent relationship based on their mutual antipathy for the opposite sex (Lili Taylor). At the same time as all this, he has an inexplicable overnight encounter with a pop artist named Marie DeSalle (Lisa Bonet), herself also recovering from a bad breakup.

Although the story, when described, sounds like a rather pointless venture, there is more there if one cares to look. With Cusack addressing the camera, acting as both narrator and main character, he explores the philosophy of why relationships work or don't work, and the inexplicable nature of romantic and sexual impulses, while maintaining the character of an obsessive obsessed with obsessing. DeVincentis's snappy dialogue and Hornby's quirky characters keep the film from getting bogged down in emotional wallowing; it maintains a generally upbeat tone, and is at its best moments hysterically witty, while still generating some valid insights into why we act the way we do with the opposite sex.

Much of this film's success rests on its talented cast members. Although Cusack is the main character and does a good job as such, Jack Black invariably steals every scene he's in. His characterization of Barry, the defiantly proud loser-geek, is full of energy and attitude; he imbues every word with a comic punch. Though this is the first American film for Danish actress Iben Hjejle, she clearly has mastered her American accent; I had no idea she wasn't from this country, and her portrayal of Laura is likable and energetic.

High Fidelity is full of great music, relationship angst, and compulsive listmaking — everything a pop junkie deals with on a daily basis. Being a record store owner at heart, I found it loads of fun. ****½

Copyright 2000 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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