We gave it a B-
Who will be the Last Bohemian? The East Village punk with nine nose rings who finally pierces his own spleen? The teen cyberculture revolutionary who declares war on his school in a chat room? The light and flaky romantic comedy High Fidelity takes a somewhat more whimsical view. Adapted — or, should I say, transplanted — from Nick Hornby’s 1995 novel, which is set in London, the movie dares to envision the Last Bohemian as Rob Gordon (John Cusack), a boyishly rueful Chicago underachiever in his early 30s who might be described, quite simply, as a guy who likes records. You know, those round, grooved, shiny black things with tiny holes in the middle that people used to spin for pleasure. Rob, a part-time dance-club DJ, hoards shelfloads of them in his apartment, and he runs a low-budget connoisseur’s shop called Championship Vinyl that’s like an extension of his home collection. He keeps the LPs in clear plastic sleeves, the way that certain old couples, for decades, maintain their sofas in protective slipcovers. He doesn’t just love pop music; he loves the pastness of it, the way that it binds him to the sweet seductions of memory.
Rob employs two quasi-hapless music nuts, the bald, neurasthenic Dick (Todd Louiso) and the portly, monomaniacal Barry (Jack Black), and the three of them sit around the store all day, obsessing over the pop and rock of the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s — and current faves, too, like the Beta Band — as if they were monks debating sacred texts of medieval catechism. Their dialogue takes the form of a rolling trivia contest, as they chew over such revelatory issues as the influence of Stiff Little Fingers on Green Day or attempt to one-up each other in the creation of arcane, encyclopedic lists: the top five songs about death, the top five first songs on side one, or whatever. The more obscure the reference, of course, the better. Rob is also haunted by his top five most wounding breakups, and he ruminates on that list, in flashback, along with many other regrets, as if his life were a melancholy hit single he was destined to play over and over again.
Directed by Stephen Frears (The Grifters), High Fidelity is a cute, quaint, at times rather silly movie that displays a genuine affection for the rebel-nerd scholasticism of record-store junkies. Dressed in their promo T-shirts and off-the-thrift-shop-rack monstrosities, Rob and his coworkers hide behind the songs they love, turning the cherished tracks into advertisements for their hidden emotions; at the same time, they use taste as a weapon. Jack Black, who is one half of the satirical rock duo Tenacious D, sports a soul patch and has beady eyes wedged inside a doughy, panicked face. He plays Barry as an amusingly wired, passive-aggressive bully who holds the entire universe of popular music within his brain, all of it meticulously catalogued into the good, the bad, or the sublime. If you disagree with him, you’re one of the unenlightened, and he can barely bring himself to speak to you. (As a professional critic, I, naturally, have never indulged in this brand of fascist-fanzine pathology.)
Cusack, terrific as he was in Being John Malkovich, comes on more and more these days as a hip over-actor who italicizes every bon mot with his hyper-articulate archness. In High Fidelity, which Cusack cowrote and coproduced with D.V. DeVincentis and Steve Pink, the same team he collaborated with on Grosse Pointe Blank (the other screenwriter is Scott Rosenberg), Rob spends much of the movie addressing us directly, coyly breaking the fourth wall as he describes his bittersweet history of romantic failure. We see a parade of his former flames, including one played by the joker-eyed tigress Catherine Zeta-Jones. We also get the saga of his current girlfriend, Laura (Iben Hjejle), who abandons him without quite breaking up, bouncing back and forth between Rob and the ludicrous cell-phone hippie (Tim Robbins) upstairs, a situation that results in far too many shots of Rob pining away in the rain.
For all its music-trivia affection, High Fidelity is finally a pretty thin melody. I enjoyed the oddball references, the amused celebration of Top 40 trash like ”The Night Chicago Died” (by Paper Lace, in case you were wondering). Yet I missed the deeper, wilder love of pop that’s expressed in, say, the opening scene of Reservoir Dogs, with Quentin Tarantino’s adult hoodlums sitting around a diner debating the meaning of Madonna’s ”Like a Virgin” as if it were as vital a matter as the heist for which they’d been assembled. In High Fidelity, Rob’s music fixation is a signpost of his arrested adolescence; he needs to get past records to find true love. If the movie had had a richer romantic spirit, he might have embraced both in one swooning gesture.