Directed by Stephen Frears
Starring John Cusack, Iben Hjejle, Jack Black, Todd Louiso, Lisa Bonet, Joan Cusack, Tim Robbins
Touchstone Home Video; widescreen (1.85:1 aspect ratio)
Extras: Interviews with John Cusack and Stephen Frears, deleted scenes, more
Translating Nick Hornby’s classic “vinyl-crazed boy grows up” novel from London to Chicago works much better than I thought it would. (Don’t get me wrong here: The novel’s in my Top Five All-Time Books About Men, while the movie might barely squeak onto the Top 20 Agreeable Hipster Romance list.) As co-writer, co-producer and star John Cusack explains in an interview, the switch wasn’t made by a Hollywood screenwriting committee but by him and his pals. They immediately knew the Chicago neighborhood where tormented hero Rob would live (Wicker Park), the corner where Rob’s record store would be and the dive bar where he’d get bombed when depressed.
Stephen Frears’ intimate, character-driven directorial style is of course ideal for “High Fidelity,” and the early-’90s, shabby hipster interiors are perfect, right down to the peeling, 6-year-old posters and the cockeyed Pier 1 blinds. As an actor, Cusack sets himself a nearly impossible mountain to climb. In an effort to capture some distilled essence of Hornby’s self-conscious first-person narration, Rob constantly breaks out of the scene to deliver his compulsive internal patter directly to the audience. At times this produces enjoyable comic effects, but it’s also basically undramatic, sometimes rendering the movie a cozy bohemian-lite sitcom: “Malcolm in the Middle” for guys who have original Stiff Little Fingers LPs.
For my money, the best moments in “High Fidelity” come without gimmicks, when Rob is simply hanging out in the store with his even more maniacal cronies, Barry (Jack Black) and Dick (the amazing Todd Louiso, surely born to be an affectless record-store geek, or at least to play one). Danish actress Iben Hjejle (EE-ben YAI-la, if you’re curious) is quite charming as Laura, the girl who forces Rob to tiptoe toward his future, but personally I think her Scandinavian-skeleton look is entirely wrong for the character; Laura should have had more substance and brass, physically and otherwise.
Tim Robbins (as a New Age creep) and Lisa Bonet (as a slithery, seductive folk-rock singer) make the most of their cameos, and Joan Cusack is a delight as the gabby, densely accented mutual friend who passes info between Rob and Laura. Lili Taylor and Catherine Zeta-Jones, on the other hand, are squandered in brief, jokey appearances as Rob’s exes.
The Cusack and Frears interviews are agreeable, if routine, P.R. kissy-face, but the deleted scenes include several gems that fans of the film shouldn’t do without: Confronted with the impossible task of creating a Top Five All-Time Songs list, Rob shockingly neglects “Let’s Get It On”!