Great soundtrack, nice girls, etc

High Fidelity (15) | Directors: Stephen Frears | Starring: John Cusack, Iben Hjejle, Todd Louiso, Jack Black, Lisa Bonet | 113 mins
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The Independent Culture

The Big Picture

The Big Picture

Here is a film which seeks an answer to one of Life's Big Questions: can a man maintain a relationship and a large record collection at the same time? The issue has been preoccupying thirtysomething Rob (John Cusack) who owns an independent record shop in Chicago which caters for vinyl junkies like himself. "I'd feel guilty about taking their money if I wasn't one of them," he says.

Rob was also, until recently, the boyfriend of Laura (Iben Hjejle), but she moves out of his apartment in the opening scene, leaving him to contemplate life on his own amid the LPs meticulously stacked and racked along his walls. And what kind of a life is that?

High Fidelity is based, of course, on Nick Hornby's famous novel, a book whose original title, Pop, Girls, etc, perfectly encapsulates the world view of blokes like Rob: as long as you've got records and girls, the rest of life can be safely packed away and labelled under "etc".

Hornby's great idea was to have his hero try to assuage his romantic distress (why is he "doomed" to be rejected?) by seeking out each of the ex-girlfriends on his Top Five Most Memorable Break-Ups and asking them what went wrong. In different hands, this psychological detective work might have had haunting, even tragic consequences, but Hornby's nimble, forgiving wit steered the narrative into a comedy of male inadequacy and regret. It was a breakthrough: emotional constipation had found a new laureate.

Fans may have quailed at the prospect of the novel's north-London setting being dropped in favour of Chicago, but director Stephen Frears has managed the transition with aplomb. Rob's record shop may have become a record "store", but, in its particulars, it remains much the same, a poky, mournful little hang-out where the customers tend to be pasty-faced, knowledgeable and, above all, sparse.

Chicago itself looks grey enough to pass for a British summer, and rainy enough to rival a holiday in Wales. Also intact in the transatlantic move are Rob's co-workers, Dick (Todd Louiso) and Barry (Jack Black), the implication being that young men obsessive about keeping Top-Five lists and making compilation tapes are the same the world over. Next to these two, Rob looks positively sane and well-rounded, though he knows that it's nothing to boast about.

Rob is afflicted, like Dick and Barry, with an incorrigible belief in the superiority of his musical taste, honed and refined by years of uneasy listening. What matters to him is "what you like, not what you are like", a philosophy which might win friends down at the record store but will never impress a woman.

It's in attempting to duplicate the intimacy of the narrative voice that the film runs into difficulties. The script has maintained a pretty high fidelity to the novel's best lines and jokes, either by couching them in Cusack's direct addresses to the camera, a là Michael Caine's Alfie, or by the far less satisfactory method of voiceover. I can't help thinking that voiceover in a movie (even a great movie) is, at some level, an admission of failure. "Dramatise, dramatise, dramatise," wrote Henry James, who wouldn't have been much help on Top Five Side Ones-Track Ones, but knew a thing or two about visualising human interaction. Stephen Frears keeps offering us scenes which suddenly cut out, inviting Cusack to fill in what happened next.

For instance, Rob unexpectedly scores one night with a beautiful singer named Marie (Lisa Bonet), then chuckles confidingly to the audience: "'How does he do it?' you ask yourselves." Well, yes, we did wonder - but there's not a scene here that's going to tell us. I'm not sure if this is laziness on Frears' part or a failure of nerve; either way, the film develops a stop-start rhythm which mimics Hornby's confessional style but is actually no more imaginative than someone reading the book aloud. This becomes even more pronounced when Rob halts mid-stroll to deliver a lovesick ode to his ex, entitled, of course, "Top Five Things About Laura", and as he goes on about her character, loyalty, grace etc, we suddenly realise how little we know this woman. Iben Hjejle, terrific as the prostitute in last year's Mifune, makes of Laura a genial, smiling presence, though it's significantly in her absence that the writing crackles most vividly. The film hasn't thought out a way to lend her character anything more complex than a weary tolerance; it is she who is most short-changed by the jittery style.

It's just as well, then, that Cusack makes the most of the spotlight. Once he gets over the annoying habit of leaping over chairs and counters prior to perching on them, he sets about endearing us with a kind of depressive charm; even during moments of apparent happiness he has the air of a man who'd rather be somewhere, anywhere, else, presumably compiling his Top Fives. The performance also matches up nicely with an earlier role; Rob could easily be the needy student of The Sure Thing 15 years down the line.

There are some eye-catching turns in support, the best of them by Jack Black, whose unsuspected talent takes the film by surprise at the end; Tim Robbins does a great little cameo as Rob's love rival, a ponytailed bozo with a touch of the Zens; Joan Cusack lights up every scene she's in merely by widening her eyes.

What also gives the film a lift is the jukebox medley of top sounds, chosen, it would be safe to assume, with Rob-like fastidiousness. When vinyl nerds of the future get round to compiling Top Five Film Soundtracks Based on a Bestselling Novel, this one should walk off with it. If the movie it accompanies isn't quite the knock-out that one hoped for, it's still smart, funny, well-cast and I'd still choose the book; as to the question of relationships over pop music, the distinction seems irrelevant. How can one survive without the other?