Music junkie Rob Gordon (John Cusack) owns a record store in Chicago and is just getting over the latest in a long line of breakups with his girlfriend, Laura (Iben Hjejle). Romance obsesses him almost as much as the vinyl he peddles and he spends sleepless nights comprising mental lists of various top fives, be they women or songs.
Based on a novel by Nick Hornby, High Fidelity is obviously a labor of love for Cusack, who co-wrote the screenplay. It's a highly personal account of a slacker Peter Pan trying to find himself and love in his beloved Windy City. Stephen Frears directs with comic authority, particularly focusing on Gordon's interplay with his two loser employees, wan nerd Dick (Todd Louiso), and explosively extrovert nerd Barry (Jack Black). These three spend many aimless hours in their often empty store debating pop music as if it were the Munich Pact; being surly to the odd, know-nothing customer with the temerity to request, say, a Stevie Wonder song, and blunderingly attempting to lend emotional support to one another. These scenes comprise the high points of the film-however much one may question their pretty middle-of-the-road musical tastes-and are largely preferable to Cusack's endless direct addresses to the camera about his unvaryingly sophomoric mental states. His quirky comedic timing serves him well but, inevitably, Rob comes off as your basic, self-involved asshole. Cusack has aged physically since his stunning appearance in Frears' magnificent The Grifters ten years ago, but only, it would seem here, outwardly. The list-making-top five songs to play at funerals, breakups, etc., etc.-becomes tiresome. Rob also replays his past romances in his head and they're quite an assortment. Hjejle is an interestingly atypical leading-man's babe (as Minnie Driver was in Cusack's Grosse Pointe Blank, before all those semi-draped Oscar appearances) and projects real intelligence and authority. Catherine Zeta-Jones has fun as a narcissistic bitch, although one rather wonders if that's all she can play. Lili Taylor, who appeared with Cusack in Say Anything (and, indeed, their characters here are like offshoots of the ones they played in that film), is amusingly needy. The long-unseen Lisa Bonet, as a local singer, again proves herself one of the most beautiful women in the world (even if she does warble a Peter Frampton song).
The best performance, however, is given by nervous-eyed Louiso, who is understatedly hilarious as the very frail-seeming Dick. He epitomizes the type of jittery, hyper-self-conscious jerk one often has to deal with in record and video specialty shops. When he meets his equally shy beloved, a bemused, underused Sara Gilbert, a real sweetness fills the air and you wish the movie would take off with them, instead. Also underutilized is Tim Robbins, as Cusack's equally egocentric romantic rival-their ultimate confrontation is silly headbanging stuff. The manic Black chews up the scenery in a way to give even Philip Seymour Hoffman pause; whether his climactic rendition of Marvin Gaye's 'Let's Get It On' is brilliant (as everyone in the movie seems to think) or plain whiteboy, hubris-driven dreck will be purely up to the viewer.