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High Fidelity Sounds Good in Principle but Occasionally Skips a Groove

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This film represents the third of three films featuring John Cusack (of all people) that top my Netflix queue, just in case you were keeping track.

High Fidelity rounds out the trio of John Cusack films that I hadn't seen and thought to include on my queue when I formed it a few years ago. I mostly wanted to see this film because on, there was a whole discussion group based around a concept featured prominently in the film. The group was called Top 5; as in the film, the purpose of the group was to categorize films and other topics according to personal five-best lists. I added the film to the queue because I mostly wanted to know what that was about. Plus, I have a certain nostalgia for vinyl record shops, which are few and far between nowadays, and I anticipated that this film would fill that void.

High Fidelity centers on a self-proclaimed audiophile named Rob Gordon (Cusack), whose ability to understand women can't hold a candle to his ability to review and appreciate music. After being dumped by his current girlfriend Laura (Iben Hjelje), he decides to explore reasons for why his relationships tend to crash and burn by contacting old flames comprising his "top 5" breakups (one of which is played by Catherine Zeta Jones). In fact, he spends his days as a Chicago record store owner by touting his unique brand of elitism, his love of music, over his customers. With the help of his employees, Dick and Barry (Jack Black), otherwise known as the "musical moron twins," Rob tends to categorize everything according to his personal five-best lists, mocks his patrons, and chases away shoplifting skateboarders and aspiring recording artists Vince and Justin. All the while, Rob's personal journey of self-loathing and self-discovery is accompanied by a motley soundtrack of music's most touted and most under-appreciated gems.

High Fidelity is a curious film in tone, aim, and ambiance. On the one hand, it extols the virtues of timeless music and has one of the best soundtrack compilations in recent memory, which effectively services director Stephen Frears' aim of extolling a love of music through the music of love (it doesn't come off quite as cheesy as that, but that's essentially the undercurrent of the story). On the other hand, the film feels markedly dated, and that's, frankly, because it is dated. It's a time capsule for that Y2K hybrid of the reluctant fear of and tempered hope for the new millennium and the desperate clutching to the departing coattails of the nineties. It's weighed down by the dust of old records and the lint balls of moth-eaten flannel shirts, and this quality of the film works both to put Rob's particular troubles, not uncommon though they might be, in context as well as to diminish the relevance of such troubles as one sensibility of a faded decade.

Rob himself is something of a sniveling man-child; his character is a hard sell, I would think, for the average viewer. If it weren't for Cusack's signature brand of self-effacing affability, his particular skill for finding the center of his quirky characters and evincing some sort of sympathy for their specific plights, Rob's story would fall flat. What he fails to see in his failed relationships is that he's the catalyst for the failures, whether it's due to his underdeveloped world view or to his poor choice in women. Rob's inability to make this simple connection is rendered all the more endearing and believable because Cusack infuses the right amount of obtuseness and honest confusion in his portrayal, leaving Rob a character to watch with, at least, some pity, a need to cheer for his journey, and a hope that he will make the connection in the end, if, for no other reason, than that it will put him out of his self-induced misery.

Is Rob Cusack's best character? I've read that opinion, but I don't think so. When compared to the complexities and dimensions of Martin in Grosse Pointe Blank, and given the fact that Martin, himself, is much more sympathetic in his personal identity crisis, I think Cusack's best performance, the one that, at least, demonstrated more of his range, was Martin Blank. Yet, Rob Gordon is no small feat when he's a character that is, according to his creation and purpose for being, hard to love.

The journey itself, the story of Rob, is also a worthwhile story. High Fidelity straddles the conventions of romantic comedy, but it's a romantic comedy with an edge. The inevitable happy ending is approached from, possibly, the wrong end, the nostalgia and over-analysis of dwelling on the past as opposed to the gloss-over-the-details, rosy haze of a hopeful future, and this approach makes the film engaging and relevant to the viewer. Add to that some key supporting performances, especially by Jack Black, who, with his own brand of frenetic energy and gift for physical comedic expression, steals practically every scene he is in, and High Fidelity's high-concept idea remains entertaining, even as the film smacks of the insidious self-importance that Rob and his musical minions ascribe to their snobbish critiques of the average record-purchaser. Rob learns something about himself in the end, though, which is what redeems his story, his journey, and the film, all of which the viewer is supposed to enjoy.

Thus, High Fidelity is cautiously lovable, even as it betrays some sort of quasi-bourgeois mentality that fuels its misguided main character. I think the film, as a result, merits a 7.5, between shaky but entertaining and having minor flaws but being very good. I do not believe that the film passes the test, however, While Rob's story reads well in the liner notes, the play-out of his personal journey skips a few grooves and does not make me feel as if the film warrants a repeat viewing, even if the Top 5 concept turns out to be the film's best, most interesting, and most quotable legacy.

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