Saturday, October 8, 2011

John Cusack Week Continues with High Fidelity Movie Review

I’ve rarely had as strong a personal connection to a movie or a character as I had to John Cusack’s Rob Gordon in High Fidelity. At the time it was as if Rob was speaking directly to me. In fact, he regularly breaks the fourth wall and talks directly to camera, a wonderful little touch by the screenwriting team (J.V. DeVincentis, Cusack, Steve Pink, and Scott Rosenberg) in adapting the Nick Hornby novel and deftly handled by Stephen Frears so that it never feels forced or gimmicky. However, it wasn’t only the direct connection to Rob that Cusack and Frears made me feel as an audience member, but a story that was, quite frankly, what I imagined I would write at the time if I were to write a screenplay.

I was a movie junkie with a wide expanse of trivial knowledge on the subject and thought I knew more than just about everyone. Rob is the same with music. I was a critic with an unheard voice, desperately wanting to put something new into the world. This character trait is one of the keys to Rob’s inability to commit. I obsessively compose lists (my blog is supposed to have a focus on movie lists, but I simply haven’t found the time to keep up with that). Rob’s thing is composing “Top 5” music lists. I was in a crisis of wondering why I couldn’t find the right woman, or hold onto the right one when she was there. Rob’s story begins with a breakup and examination of why he’s constantly rejected. I narcissistically believed my story would be so interesting to tell, but little did I know that Hornby had already put into novel form and here was Stephen Frears adapting into one hell of a romantic film.

More than ten years have passed and my life is very different now than it was then. I no longer encounter High Fidelity in the same way. That is to say it’s not as personally resonant, but I still admire it for the craft of its screenplay and the light touch of Frears’ direction.

High Fidelity might be one of the few guy romantic films in that it presents an honest portrait of how men approach relationships and breaking up. Or certain types of men. Rob is not the macho muscle head type who spends a night with a beautiful woman and then moves on. When he does that in the movie, he asks himself and the camera how he, of all people, gets to go home with a woman like that. He’s flabbergasted rather than victorious. He’s not vain or egocentric. He is the sensitive type without being emasculated. He loves women, respects them, and wants to find one to spend quality time with. He’s a real character, not just a shell of a person created to move the story from A to B. And Cusack provides the charisma and the years of experience playing nice guys (including two pretty good romantic leads in GrossePointe Blank and Say Anything…) necessary to pull off the act.

Rob is in crisis. His girlfriend, Laura (Iben Hjejle), of several years has just moved out because his life has become stagnant while she has grown. In between living his life as a vinyl record store owner in what I believe is the Lincoln Park neighborhood of Chicago (the transfer of setting from the London of Hornby’s book is seamless) and trying to get Laura back, he reminisces about his past romances – well the Top 5 All Time Most Painful Break Ups, anyway. He wants to get in touch with them all, with a little motivational help from Bruce Springsteen, to find out why they dumped him in a self-ingratiating attempt to discover why he’s doomed to a life of rejection.

The women on the list include his first ‘girlfriend’ from seventh grade, a girl he made out with after school for three days before she moved on to another boy; a high school sweetheart who refused to “give it up” to him; a college romance with a more mature, more sophisticated, more intelligent, more beautiful young woman with whom he never felt comfortable for his own insecurities; a rebound relationship who unfairly dissolved the spirit of their mutual ex-loathing arrangement by meeting someone else; and the fifth woman is, of course Laura.

His various encounters with the first four on his list are brilliant little vignettes, each one helping Rob chip away at the façade of crap he’s built around himself – namely that he’s some poor victim of the cruel, cold and heartless whimsy of women everywhere when in fact, he learns that maybe he’s occasionally been the one who did the rejecting. In the case of Charlie, however, the lesson learned is to let sleeping dogs lie. If you’ve ever dated someone who was out of your league and you’re wondering now why she dumped you, just let it go. Down that road lies nothing less than more misery and a needle to burst what little self-confidence you have left. That’s what Rob finds when he calls her up.

Like Grosse PointeBlank a few years earlier, Cusack produced this film too, which I imagine is what led to both films having such effective cameo and supporting appearances that help move the films along. High Fidelity’s cast includes Jack Black in a hilarious early career role as Barry, a loud and obnoxious pop music zealot and one of two oddballs employed in Rob’s store. The other is the awkwardly mousy Dick, played by Todd Louiso. The rest of the cast is filled out with appearances by Lili Taylor, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Cusack’s sister Joan, Lisa Bonet, Sara Gilbert, and Tim Robbins perfectly cast against type as a new-age hipster and Rob’s competitor for Laura’s affections.

What the book does remarkably well is get inside Rob’s and, by extension, men’s heads when it comes to how they think about women. The adaptation to the screen brings these fantasies, insecurities, and proclivities to roaring life. Rob imagines Laura having sex with another man: “No one in the history of the world has had better sex than the sex you’re having with [him] in my head.” When he learns that Laura has not slept with her new man yet (and yes, that is really what’s foremost on his mind) he dances out of his apartment as Queen’s “We Are the Champions” blasts on the soundtrack. In a flashback, it’s the shock of seeing Charlie through her window with another man. Any man who’s been through that knows exactly how Rob probably feels like he’s been slugged in the gut and gotten the wind knocked out of him. It’s the walking in the pouring rain, putting forehead to palms and releasing a primal scream of frustration. It’s these kinds of honest details that set High Fidelity apart from most other romantic films. It knows what pain feels like.

Rob being a record store owner and music aficionado, it’s only fitting that the film have a great soundtrack. It’s sprinkled with recognizable hits like “Walking on Sunshine,” “Let’s Get It On,” and “Crocodile Rock” as well as offbeat songs and the occasional rarity by the likes of The Beta Band and Stiff Little Fingers. If it has one drawback it’s that it sometimes feels like there are inside jokes being made that those of us on the outside just won’t get. And truthfully I think those moments serve more as icing on the cake provided as something extra for those who get it and less as a means of creating a culture of exclusivity because at the end of the day, Rob’s plight is universal. It may be more unique to the male experience, but I’m sure more than a few women would watch this and understand not only Rob’s pain, but Laura’s as well.

In the end, Rob completes a satisfying character arc. He doesn’t come full circle, he has no grand epiphany that helps him see where he’s gone wrong, but he slowly begins to see where he has room for improvement. Even when things are on the up, he begins to slip that one foot out the door again – the kind of thinking that gets him in trouble over and over again. The conclusion he draws from his experiences about how to proceed with Laura is really quite touching and the stuff that we should all strive to adhere to. If you walk away from High Fidelity wanting to be more like Rob Gordon, you’ll be no worse for wear.

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