John Cusack plays the bitterness of being dumped with droll aplomb in "High Fidelity," an observant and acerbic dark comedy in which he is our overly-reflective tour guide through the farcical misery of a bad breakup.
Cusack adapted the screenplay himself from Nick Hornsby's underground best-seller about a London slacker who opened a used record store in his 20s and has employed it as an excuse to never grow up.
For the film, the action is moved to Chicago (the star/screenwriter's old stomping grounds), where Rob Gordon (Cusack) hangs out all day in his shop full of tattered record bins plastered with radio station stickers, composing musically pretentious Top Five lists (Top Five Side-One First Tracks, Top Five Formerly Great Sell-Out Musicians) with his equally idle and smug clerks (Todd Louiso and Jack Black).
As the movie opens, Rob's live-in girlfriend Laura (Danish actress Iben Hjejle) is packing up and hitting the bricks. Realizing he can't talk her out of it, he turns instantly resentful and swears boisterously that she'll never make it onto his Top Five Worst-Ever Breakups -- which are subsequently cataloged in facetious flashbacks at various points throughout the movie.
Using his on-screen narration as a form of therapy and musical pop culture references as philosophy, Rob sulks around his cave-like pad full of second-hand furniture and concert posters, re-cataloging his endless LP collection and waxing huffy about his breakup to the audience. Then he has an epiphany: He'll track down those Top Five breakup girls and try to figure out what he keeps doing wrong.
In his grumpy funk, Rob can be a pretty grating guy, but Cusack's script and performance strike exactly the right balance between self-indulgent brooding and caustic comedy.
Directed by Stephen Frears ("Dangerous Liaisons," "The Snapper") with wall-to-wall wry, observational wit and fantastic attention to detail, "High Fidelity" is in many ways a mature and more accomplished extension of Cusack's teen comedies of the 1980s.
In addition to Rob, the poster-boy for romantic dysfunction and Generation X ennui, the movie is populated by three-dimensional version of stock characters from those teen flicks.
Tim Robbins plays the falsely-sensitive granola that Laura takes up with after leaving Rob. He's an "I can't believe she left me for that schmuck!" caricature of the way every guy sees his exes' new beaux.
Catherine Zeta-Jones (in an comical twist on the Unattainable Dream Girl character) and Lily Taylor (as an over-medicated former Misery Chick) have two-scene roles as Rob's No. 3 and No. 4 Worst-Ever Breakups. And instead of just being The Destiny Girl, Hjejle gets to develop the emerging maturity that leads her character to abandon Rob's perpetually pubescent world when she took a well-paying office job and let go her punk club-bunny roots.
Certainly one of the Top Five Best-Ever Breakup Movies, the spirit of "High Fidelity" comes from its underground mood, its continuous supply of hilariously perceptive asides (about, for instance, the science of making someone a mix tape) and its whimsical but realistic characters.
These elements -- plus Cusack's geeky charm and Frears' skilled direction -- distinguish "Hi Fi" from the vastly inferior and never-ending flow of soundtrack-driven, assembly-line romantic comedies that strive for nothing more than momentary hipness.
"High Fidelity" may be dated by its music and setting, but it will stand the test of time because it captures this generation's most common relationship foibles so amusingly.