High Fidelity

"The question is: can you survive me?"

High Fidelity, the highly-acclaimed romantic comedy from director Stephen Frears, is cynical and amusing but ultimately underwhelming. It’s consistently funny in its dissection of the world of music geekdom and it has a feel for how real people talk but it’s also repetitive and shallow. It works when the scenes take place in the protagonist’s record store and the dialogue is inconsequential but is less effective when trying to explore the character’s romantic travails and looking to gain our sympathy.

John Cusack is a vastly underappreciated actor: he has never received an Oscar nomination and his performances are rarely talked about, though they almost always get noticed by critics. Here he effortlessly slides into the role of Rob Gordon, a record store owner with serious love life problems. He concerns himself with the obnoxiousness of his record store employees who regularly browbeat customers about their tastes in music to take his mind off his real dilemma: why has he never been able to keep up a relationship with a woman?

But now, after his latest girlfriend (Iben Hjejle) leaves him, he is determined to get to the root of his romantic affliction. He determines the top five most devastating break-ups of his life. He then proceeds to seek out each of the five former girlfriends and find out just why they broke up with him. His purpose in this is to make himself feel better; to convince himself that there isn’t anything wrong with him and that his bad streak with women is simply a matter of chance.

Cusack addresses the camera directly all throughout the movie, actually reciting some of the text from Nick Hornby’s book of the same name. This is a tried-and-true method for a screenwriter to make his life easier by allowing the characters to express his emotions via apostrophe rather than having to actually write exposition. Usually I see it as a cop-out, but in High Fidelity, it works because it fits in with the movie’s old-fashioned, quirky feel.

When the topic is music, the dialogue sparkles. You don’t have to know as much about old rock as these characters do to enjoy the banter. As a matter of fact, being oblivious might even be better for the circumstances because that’s how the people around them felt. You’ll have a better perspective of their obsession. Their self-important arguments and holier-than-thou attitude is utterly hilarious. But when the film focuses on Rob’s more serious dilemmas, the movie is more problematic. It becomes redundant and somewhat pointless; by the end we’re supposed to see that the character has undergone a big transformation, but I failed to see how he really changed.

John Cusack is excellent in a performance that — literally — is the movie. The whole script depends on it. His performance contains the right amount of sarcasm to give the impression of a guy not quite living in the same world with the rest of us but enough clueless sweetness to make his character at least a little sympathetic. The movie doesn’t always make him the best person to connect with emotionally and sometimes we see just why all these women have left him, but Cusack really pulls us through it with his charm and knack for deadpan comedy.

High Fidelity is simply hit-and-miss. I’m recommending the movie because it’s more of the former. I liked John Cusack and the way the movie affectionately poked fun at the music-obsessed culture just as Galaxy Quest gently mocked Star Trek and its fans. If I’m not enthusiastic it’s because the script spends so much time on those little things that it never gets its real plot too far off the ground. And let’s hope High Fidelity doesn’t start another trend of characters talking to the camera.

-- Eugene Novikov

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