When a man loves a woman - and other classic singles

High Fidelity (15) <i>Stephen Frears, 113 mins</i>
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The Independent Culture

Top five film-demanding event-novels of the 1990s, on this side of the Atlantic: Bridget Jones's Diary, Birdsong, Trainspotting, The Beach, High Fidelity. Bridget Jones is a tricky and uninteresting problem for film-makers, because, although currently in production, she has long missed her slot (v.v.g.!). Birdsong will get the middle-brow treatment it deserves. Trainspotting required an artist and got Danny Boyle to compere a revue. And The Beach, casually written and novelistically unadventurous, nevertheless has a deep structure, a mythic purity of storyline that should have made it a great film - it could have been the great film of recent years.

Top five film-demanding event-novels of the 1990s, on this side of the Atlantic: Bridget Jones's Diary, Birdsong, Trainspotting, The Beach, High Fidelity. Bridget Jones is a tricky and uninteresting problem for film-makers, because, although currently in production, she has long missed her slot (v.v.g.!). Birdsong will get the middle-brow treatment it deserves. Trainspotting required an artist and got Danny Boyle to compere a revue. And The Beach, casually written and novelistically unadventurous, nevertheless has a deep structure, a mythic purity of storyline that should have made it a great film - it could have been the great film of recent years.

High Fidelity, for about 120 pages, could have been the great novel. But it was so desolate and lonely that Nick Hornby's timorous artistic instincts - with a yelp! - reasserted themselves, and he hustled the second half safely back home into what reads as a romantic comedy begging to walk off the page onto celluloid. That'd make a great film, you murmured, closing the book.

Well, it has. And those of you wringing your hands over its being set in the US rather than the basement-end of Hornby's N19 ought to get over yourselves. (At least this way we are spared Vinnie Jones glowering over the Metal racks.) So, the film is set in down-town Chicago. Rob (John Cusack) owns a second-hand record shop, the type visited by young men who think vinyl is sacred. He's no great shakes - young but not so young, a smoker but not a committed smoker, rarely emboldened or irresistible. His co-workers are Dick (Todd Louiso) and Barry (Jack Black, an actor with a real odd-ball zing) who are only paid to work three afternoons a week, but turn up every day anyway. Rob has been abandoned by his girlfriend, and when he finds out she left him for a neighbour who likes world music, he loses his marbles. He wants her, wants her, wants her back. Every song hurts. Barry and Dick don't know what to say, or what to play. Marvin Gaye? No way. Elvis Costello? Too naked. The Clash? Now you're talking. And so on.

The picture is gorgeously buoyant, pogoing through sulks and laughs and mutterings. Even the to-camera outbursts are nimble and easy. If it's a film that seems longer than it is, that's because it feels like an occasion rather than a time-filler, and because it's an occasion, an away-trip, a mini-break, some scenes are handed-out like little travel-sweets to the audience. And you just know that Frears, Cusack and Black are as grinningly aware of this as we are. We're all on the back seat of the coach together.

But what really got me is that High Fidelity is a contemporary romantic comedy that doesn't get on your wick. That vein Woody Allen hit in Annie Hall (where you want to go out with them both) has long been channelled into high school movies, but they, however sassy, are pretty limited. Ideally, the twitter of romantic comedy is comprised of epigrams, aperçus, insights - it's a tool for instruction. High Fidelity belongs in this file. Like its source, it is primarily a lesson, and this Dance of the Getting of Wisdom must be played-out by Everyman and Everywoman - characters "silly like us" in Auden's phrase.

But where are they, the fallible, ordinary lovers? Not Harry or Sally. Not Ally or Rachel or Ross (attractive and droll all, but with what huge collateral capacity for irritation!) The likeable Everycouple has simply disappeared in a welter of alienating lifestyle details. When we miss, say, James Stewart, it's his Regular Guy that we miss, the way we instinctively approved of his personality. John Cusack is fit to join this tradition, which makes him one of the reasons to keep going to the cinema.

The first time I saw Cusack it was like watching a young, promising athlete. Still too light, too boyish, to nebbish (no more than a mere Matthew Broderick) to play the universal That's Me! character. Just let him put on a few pounds, I thought. Having survived the 1980s, Cusack walks like someone who's having a little parody-fantasy about toughness. His boots (or trainers - Cusack likes big shoes) are generally loose or undone, and his gerbil-mouth seems always set to utter the phrase "Well, I don't know about that." Cusack also co-wrote the script and it's a fine example of how to lift sections of a book wholesale, and how to re-organise others better. Where Hornby's women, with their Mia Farrow hair and pink cheeks, functioned simply as tutors to the men, the film's are genuinely stronger - they have more of a beat.

But the whole thing has a beat. It has rhythm in its flip-flopping gags, rhythm in its own brand of minor dippiness, rhythm in its amorous shine, rhythm in Frears's under-polished camera. It's relaxed enough to open its eyes wide, buying into both sincerity and deviousness as workable options for the slightly zonked and love-anxious. It's something we haven't seen for a long time: a weekend movie confident of being liked, because it likes us.

Gilbert Adair returns next week

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