Delightfully WARPED

John Cusack spins gold as a good-hearted, lovelorn record store owner who has trouble hearing reality over the loud music.

March 31, 2000|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,Sun Film Critic

John Cusack is emerging as one of our most fascinating filmmakers and actors, and not just because of that preternaturally puckered mouth of his, though filmgoers could easily entertain themselves just by speculating how exactly that kisser manages to look pursed and astonished at the same time.

More than a highly watchable actor, Cusack has become the chief spokesman for the particular sub-strata of a generation, for whom the cultural shibboleths of their teen years -- music, TV shows and movies -- haven't lost their totemic power. Cusack's peers, who came of age in the 1980s, are being forced to give up those childish things and accept the responsibilities of adulthood. The ensuing tussle was amusingly portrayed in Cusack's 1997 comedy "Grosse Pointe Blank," and it's even more trenchantly explored in "High Fidelity."

If music, strong women and callow men made for a diverting satiric romp in the earlier film, here they come together with the full force of Cusack's intelligence and observant humor behind them. The result is a romantic comedy that transcends its genre to become the giddy cinematic anthem of an era.

Cusack plays Rob Gordon, the owner of a Chicago record store whom we meet just as his longtime girlfriend Laura (Iben Hjejle) is leaving him. "Do I listen to pop music because I'm miserable?" Rob asks, addressing the camera, "Or am I miserable because I listen to pop music?" Such is the metaphysical dialectic of the rabid music fan, and throughout "High Fidelity" the thin line between art and life is examined with both surgical precision and hilarity.

Rob's record store -- a righteous shrine to analog culture called Championship Vinyl -- is a haven for people, mostly young men, who would rather concoct Top Five lists of their favorite songs than deal with such pressing issues as intimacy, change and commitment. They're ambered in a world whose contours are defined by obscure Smiths singles and the latest Japanese import of a Frank Zappa out-of-print album.

"High Fidelity," which Cusack, D.V. DeVincentis, Steve Pink and Scott Rosenberg adapted from Englishman Nick Hornby's novel, traces Rob's search for reasons Laura would leave him for a pretentious conflict mediator (a deadpan and ponytailed Tim Robbins). It's a satisfying journey, in which the bullheadedly clueless Rob dimly begins to realize that his tenacious grip on the nostalgic pleasures of vinyl, fecklessness and old Kinks songs must at some point make room for maturity. His sojourn includes encounters with old girlfriends to rehash past mistakes and a sulky one-night-stand, none of which threaten his state of blissfully bitter self-deception.

But it's also a journey spiced up considerably by some hot cameo appearances, namely of Lisa Bonet as a sultry singer one of Rob's friends describes as "sort of Sheryl Crow-ish crossed with a post-`Partridge Family,' pre-`L.A. Law' Susan Dey, but black." (There's another terrific turn by a rock star who shall go unnamed -- let's just say he's the guy we all wish we had at our back when the screen door slams on love.)

Cusack mopes his way through "High Fidelity" with winsome grumpiness (at one point he threatens to "throw the `Country A through K' rack out on the street and go work in a Virgin Megastore"), managing to make Rob not just believable but likable, even at his most unattractive. Director Stephen Frears has cast the film perfectly, from Rob's co-workers Barry (a mouthy fanatic played with manic zeal by Jack Black) and Dick (a wispy misfit played by Todd Louiso) to Laura, played by Hjejle, a Danish discovery who resembles a slightly more demure version of Courtney Love.

More than just another thirty-something coming-of-age tale, "High Fidelity" is about obsession, and the way we fetishize culture and, finally, our identity. "It's what you like, not what you're like," Rob explains to the audience at one point. "Books, records, movies -- these things matter."

"High Fidelity" makes good sport of a group for whom the genealogical connection between Green Day and Sticky Little Fingers actually matters. But at the end of the day, Hornby, Cusack and director Frears really believe it. "High Fidelity" is one long series of references to books, records and movies, providing an entire meta-layer of enjoyability for that slender slice of the moviegoing public who will appreciate the odd Doug Sahm song or a Silos poster.

The soundtrack (the hippest to come along in a long time) and production design alone create the cinematic equivalent of a hidden bonus track on a CD.

Even with its intelligence, observant humor and sophisticated in-jokes, "High Fidelity" succeeds because Frears has created such a pungent sense of place. Rob and his cronies exist in a subculture of slackers, obsessives and smart- aleck trivia hounds Frears has conveyed with, well, high fidelity.

Anyone who's ever done time in a record store knows that these places share a distinctive smell -- an acrid potpourri of cellophane, incense, gym socks and yesterday's lunch. "High Fidelity" is so dead-on that the audience leaves in a cloud of that ineffable perfume. The movie is, to borrow Rob's phrase, unassailably cool.

`High Fidelity'

Starring John Cusack, Iben Hjejle, Todd Louiso, Jack Black

Directed by Stephen Frears

Rated R (language, sexuality)

Running time 120 minutes

Released by Touchstone Pictures

Sun score: * * * 1/2

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