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Rob Gordon (John Cusask) loves music. He also loves women. He takes care of his music at a classic records store called Championship Vinyl. He takes care of his women, well, not so much. As it turns out, his current girlfriend is on her way out the door and he’s naturally upset. Like the music aficionado he is, he sees life and love as a series of Top 5 lists. Throughout the film he shares his experiences in lists, and so as she walks out, feeling defensive, he claims that she won’t even make his Top 5 Break Up list. But he’s painfully wrong. The film is that story and in keeping with that theme, here are the Top 5 reasons why you should watch it right now.
Yes, I have said many times on this site and on the podcast that narration is one of my least favorite thing in movies. It rarely works and is often a very lazy way to tell a story. And here . . . Rob narrates. He talks directly to us, breaking the 4th wall throughout the film, a trick that only he is capable of doing, giving us a running monologue to his story as he goes. He begins to tell us about the five worst break ups of his life, starting with grade school and ending with a woman who he readily admits was way out his league. He sees a pattern in his life and thinks that if he could just talk to each of these women and find out what went wrong, maybe he could better understand why things always fall apart. This proves to be very eye-opening as memories are not always what is truth. The constant stream of consciousness to the camera is not a new gimmick, but here it feels true, as if we are already in his head, learning as he does. It just plain works. I like it. There, I said it.
We meet Rob’s two employees at Championship Vinyl. One is Dick (Todd Louiso), an introverted audiophile who is like a quaking mouse at every turn but also very loyal. The other is the polar opposite. He’s Barry (Jack Black), and if you’re familiar with Jack Black than you know already what kind of character he is. Loud, boisterous and yet kinda charming, Barry is a like hurricane with every word that comes out of his mouth. He joins a band, and when Rob uses a little money to sign some young musics to a record label, Barry wants to be at the release party with his own band. It seems like a recipe for disaster. These two characters are like the proverbial oil and water and are metaphorically the tiny Angel and Devil on Rob’s shoulders. They are funny, touching, odd and oh so perfect.
All the while, Rob pines for his latest lost love, Laura (Iben Hjejle) who has already moved in with another man, a creepy pony-tailed conflict manager with some serious Zen issues played by Tim Robbins. She clearly still loves Rob but he is directionless, and as we learn, did some things that aren’t exactly the kinds of things one does in a serious relationship. Does he have some regrets? Of course. Can he fix his mistakes? That’s uncertain. What he does do is contact the women who populate his Top 5 Worst Breakups List so he can ask them why they left him. Each of the women sit on very specific points of the girlfriend spectrum and reveal much more than Rob is not only expecting but prepared to hear. As our hero, we are meant to follow and believe in Rob, but as the film progresses and the wonderfully realized female characters re-enter his life, things begin to shift, both for how we feel and how he feels. The women of his past are like ghosts in a Dicken’s story update, teaching him that he is the reason why things fell apart, and is it there where he needs to begin if he wants to change. Each of these women are special and decidedly different, representing various stages in Rob’s life. There’s also one women he meets in a bar, a singer named Marie De Salle (Lisa Bonet) who offers him something he thinks he needs. And there’s other women as well, from his nagging emotional mother to the mutual friend to the journalist curious about Rob’s musical past (and possibly more), they all keep Rob spinning.
Based on the book of the same name by Nick Hornby and directed by Stephen Frears, High Fidelity is a clever and surprisingly insightful look at love and romance through the eyes of a man on a journey of self discovery. What works best, and could have been the biggest failure, is the communication with the audience, mostly due to Cusack’s impassioned and personal performance that seems achingly genuine. He is aware of his failures as a boyfriend and lover and facing them becomes the hardest challenge of his life. But there is a deeper problem for Rob. It’s in his core, a part of him that endlessly distracts him and maybe what a lot of men watching will feel most connected too. Worse, he doesn’t even realize how overpowering it is on him until often it is too late. While dedicated to one thing, he is off in another direction almost desperate for that to be closer to him. When he catches himself and recognizes its destructive force, there is an emotional moment when he shouts, “When is this going to stop?” What that is and why are two fundamental parts of Rob that define who is and the two parts he needs to change if he’s ever going to have the life and love he wants. Cusack is, in fact, right at home in this role, and like Lloyd Dobler in Say Anything, he is a person you want to see do it right. You cheer for him even when he makes mistakes because you know there is good inside. The title speaks of duty and promises made but also the accuracy of which an image or sound is reproduced. Rob seeks both. Funny, poignant, and always sincere, this is a beautifully told story with a lot of rewards.
High Fidelity spends a lot of time thinking about music. It’s always there in some degree, with the music store, Rob’s vast collection of records, the musicians he meets, and even with the wonderful impromptu Top 5 lists he, Barry and Dick create throughout the film, representing changing moods in the story. While many films rely on soundtracks to be background music (and sell albums), here it fits perfectly, with music playing where it should be in places where it matters. Rob even comments on it and it adds a nice depth to the character. A grand mix of Motown to punk, hip-hop rock and more, it even features the Boss himself, Bruce Springsteen in a brief but very clever cameo. For many of us, music defines who we are and the times that we live through. High Fidelity knows that, and punctuates the setting, the characters, and the star with perfect moments in music. It’s a thing of beauty. Check out the soundtrack. And check out this film.