Grade: B-

Arrested adolescence is the subject of Stephen Frears’ new film, the location of which has been shifted (rather incongruously,
given the director’s British background) from the London of
Nick Hornby’s 1995 novel to Chicago, the hometown of star
John Cusack. “High Fidelity” centers on the romantic
misadventures of Rob Gordon (Cusack), the flaky proprietor of
a used-record store in the Windy City, who’s in a state over
his breakup with girlfriend Laura (Iben Hjejle). In a barrage
of “Alfie”-like monologues delivered directly to the audience,
Rob confides to us details regarding his past, and uniformly
disastrous, relationships. These outbursts are interspersed
with scenes of Rob desperately trying to patch things up with
Laura while trying to keep his business running, casting a
roving eye at other gals, dealing with Laura’s mouthy pal Liz
(sister Joan), producing a demo record of a couple of local
punks with surprising talent, and even–as an device to exorcise
the lingering effects of earlier failed romances–tracking down
former girlfriends to resolve his continuing obsession with
why they dumped him.

Played by Cusack with the demented intensity he regularly
brings to such scruffy, single-minded types, Rob is a reasonably
intriguing guy at first; but as the mechanics of the plot
grind on, our interest in his plight decreases. It doesn’t
take us long to figure out that the poor fellow’s problems lie
in his complete absorption with the interests of his nerdy
youth (in his case pop music, which he cherishes, catalogues
and discourses upon with the zaniness characteristic of a true
zealot, but the object of his obsession could just as well be
baseball cards or Star Wars paraphernalia)–and that his
compulsive behavior concerning vinyl is obstructing his ability
to establish a permanent bond with a woman. Thus Rob’s
difficulties all boil down to a problem with the Big C–
Commitment. That’s an awfully conventional message to be put
out by a movie that’s trying so hard to be as hip and and cool
as this one is.

So the main portion of “High Fidelity” delivers considerably
less than it promises. The relationship between Rob and Laura
(anyone for the old “Dick Van Dyke Show”?) never becomes as
engaging as it ought to be, and whether or not they’ll
reconnect isn’t much of an issue. Nor do Rob’s romantic
reminiscences offer a lot of interest: though his past
amours are played by the likes of Catherine Zeta-Jones,
Lili Taylor and Joelle Carter, the flashbacks involving those
characters and the contemporary scenes involving their
reacquaintance offer surprisingly few laughs. As a result the
center of the picture is rather flaccid and tepid. We’re
left listening to Rob delivering far too many rants about his
misfortunes and watching him sulking about rain-soaked streets
much too frequently. (Indeed, Cusack spends so much time
dripping with rainwater that one begins to worry about the
deleterious effect it might have on his health.)

Happily, there are substantial compensations too, not only
in terms of the script’s often-amusing musical allusions and a
clever soundtrack but also via some very canny casting of the
supporting roles. Jack Black and Todd Louiso prove adept
scene-stealers as the two even-more-obsessed clerks at Rob’s
store; the former’s manic energy and the latter’s dyspeptic
mien both bring ample laughs, even if they’re all-too-obvious
Characters. And Tim Robbins does a cameo as Ian, the smarmy
stress-management consultant whom Laura turns to after leaving
Rob, that’s right on the money (and allows for a hilarious
fantasy sequence in which our hero imagines how he might deal
with the slimy Lothario.)

But in the final analysis, despite the efforts of the cast and
its capable director, “High Fidelity” leaves much less of an
impression than does another current tale of arrested
adolescence–Curtis Hanson’s “Wonder Boys,” a far more complex
and textured (as well as funnier) tale of an man making
long-delayed decisions about his life. That picture digs much
deeper (just as Michael Douglas’ performance outshines Cusack’s),
and leaves this new effort in the dust. Ultimately watching
“High Fidelity” is like listening to a decent, though not
exceptional, old LP: if you’re willing to put up with all the
pops, scratches and skips along the way, it’s reasonably
enjoyable. But by comparison “Wonder Boys” is one of those
classic discs you’ll still be carefully removing from its
cardboard cover years from now and savoring anew with each