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Memphis Flyer Sweet Lowdown

High praise for 'High Fidelity.'

By Ashley Fantz

APRIL 17, 2000:  Some actors shine in the spotlight; some look better in the rain.

John Cusack has not one, not two, but three downpour scenes in High Fidelity, a movie about the terrible, gut-twisting, shameless weeks following the end of a serious relationship. And never does Cusack look more sincere than with a heartache, his small, round mouth sputtering speed-of-light monologues about Her, She, the One -- that ethereal chick whose love was perfect and easy.

Audiences bumrushed record stores in the '80s when Cusack lifted a boombox playing Peter Gabriel's "In Your Eyes" for Ione Sky in Say Anything. Those who recall his role as Lloyd Dobbler -- who wooed the beautiful brainy girl, got dumped, but won in the end because he chose to be a man and not just a guy -- know that Cusack is the only actor who could portray novelist Nick Hornby's protagonist Rob. He gives him dignity in the face of a diss, taking subtle pride in his shortcomings -- lust, envy, jealousy, and a kinship with Peter Frampton.

Laura has left Rob. She is a lawyer; he owns a record shop called Championship Vinyl. They met years ago when he was deejaying at a club in downtown Chicago. She moved in with him and with his 500-plus record collection. During their relationship, she changes her ambitions, her clothes, her ideas about life, her understanding of love. He changes his hair style, maybe. Actress Iben Hjejle is right on as Laura. It's clear she still loves Rob, but can't live her adult life with a guy so obsessed with pop music that everything in his life is disseminated in a top-five list. She's in love with an overgrown boy who's no good for her. Rob copes with their break-up by reorganizing his record collection -- in autobiographical order. "If I want to play, say Blue by Joni Mitchell, I have to remember that I bought it for somebody in the autumn of 1983, but didn't give it to them for personal reasons," he explains.

Rob is the breed of guy who is not simply into pop culture, but swimming through his days in a dank, dusty record shop that is the embodiment of musical snobbery, a place where life is set to a non-stop soundtrack. It's a place where his thrift-store refugee employees, Dick and Barry, played by newcomers Todd Louiso and Jack Black, can tell a paying, albeit unhip customer, to hit the road when he asks for Stevie Wonder's "I Just Called To Say I Love You." They don't sell that kind of sentimental crap, Barry yells. The three spend their hours making top-five lists of everything. Top-five movies, top-five songs of remorse, top-five top-five lists. Rob, in his funk, recounts the top-five women who ruined his life. He tracks all of those women down to see if they will satisfy his wounded ego by saying the number-one cliché in the top-five of relationship clichés, "It's not you; it's me."

Cameos from Catherine Zeta Jones and Lili Taylor are appropriately cast to show Rob's range in romantic taste. Rounding out the cast are actresses we don't see enough -- Sara Gilbert and Lisa Bonet. Tim Robbins takes the role of Ian, the sensitive, pony-tailed lover for whom Laura leaves Rob, to the new levels of patchouli stink. Even Bruce Springsteen steps in for a fantasy sequence strumming his guitar and dispensing advice.

High Fidelity survives mostly because Nick Hornby's best-selling novel on which this film is based is incredibly witty and honest, not because it's easily translatable to film. Cusack goes into lengthy, straight-from-the-book monologues, delivered aside style. In them, he's mostly musing about these scornstresses. This is sometimes tiring and lacks creativity. Hornby had nothing to do with the script, so it was up to Cusack and director Stephen Frears to parcel out lines. They deserve praise for wrestling with a plotless story. There is no climax in this movie as there is not a climax in relationships. They are happy, event-filled, google-eyed preoccupations until the end, when they either fizzle out or explode and die after a fight.

But, Cusack can turn one-person dialogue that seems to go on forever into something more insightful than idiot babbling. Remember the speech from Say Anything, "I don't want to buy anything sold or bought or processed. Or process anything sold or bought, or sell anything bought or processed. I can't figure it all out tonight, sir; I just want to hang with your daughter." Audiences will buy that Rob is willing to spill his guts to them while he's lying naked in bed next to another woman the same night Laura has told him she hasn't yet slept with anyone else. They will buy that the same way they'll buy Rob picking up a pile of Laura's clothes, smelling them, and then spitefully saying he knows women wear their best underwear when they know they are going to get laid. The other stuff, the stained cotton drawers, are the ones they wear most of the time.

The book is set in London; therefore most of the humor that earned Hornby a legion of loyal readers is English. Surprisingly, the locale change to Chicago works, minus the "arses," "piss offs," and musings about Camden Square. Thankfully, English director Frears keeps High Fidelity from becoming a drippy, gooey love story. Rob's cynical observations about women and music are kept sharp and veracious. There is no line that panders to the top-40 Britney Spears fan.

High Fidelity is one of the best movies of this year, sliding safely into the top-five list of great romance comedies. It was faithful to a book that deserves nothing less than an homage. Each actor creates his own memorable character without upstaging each other. And most importantly, it's got a wicked soundtrack, including the Thirteenth Floor Elevators, the Kinks, and Stereolab.

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