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Show, Don't Tell: John Cusack narrates his life's problems--including his breakup with Iben Hjejle (pictured)--in 'High Fidelity.'

Sweet and Stunted

'High Fidelity' doesn't capture the delicate balance of Nick Hornby's novel

By Michelle Goldberg

NICK HORNBY'S NOVEL High Fidelity triumphed because the author was able to make his protagonist seem simultaneously like a callous, emotionally stunted cad and a sweet, adrift naïf. The book puts you inside protagonist Rob Gordon's head and thus forces you to empathize with all his romantic clumsiness and fumbling rationalizations.

Rob is the kind of guy who drives the Bridget Joneses of this world shrieking to the nearest gallon container of double-fudge ice cream, but on paper his confusion, self-deprecation and muddled good intentions redeem him. Watching someone behave as Rob does from without is an entirely different affair, though, which is ultimately why the film version of High Fidelity seems so sour.

The movie certainly had promise. With his sad, shadowed eyes and corrosive, self-effacing wit, John Cusack is the perfect choice for the lead. The cast is studded with talent, especially the women--there's Lili Taylor, Sara Gilbert, Lisa Bonet, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Cusack's endlessly endearing sister, Joan.

Stephen Frears seems the ideal filmmaker for this wry tale of romantic compromises. His Dangerous Liaisons demonstrated a sublime feel for sexual power struggles and romantic manipulations, and his version of Roddy Doyle's The Snapper brought the book's dark, dry humor and earthy warmth to the screen.

So why couldn't he do the same with High Fidelity? The most glaring problem is with the script--not because it deviates from Hornby's prose, but because it sticks to it far too slavishly. Much of the book High Fidelity is an internal monologue. Rather than translating Rob's thoughts for the screen, the script's authors simply turned them into exterior monologues.

Perhaps the filmmakers thought this tactic would mirror the book's intimacy, but all it does is slow the story enormously. One wants to scream that old Creative Writing 101 platitude at the screen: "Show, don't tell!"

THE TALE CUSACK narrates is the story of Rob Gordon's romantic misadventures and self-inflicted heartbreak. Rob is a record store owner who hasn't found anything to replace his adolescent pop enthusiasms. He and his employees--the rotund, bombastic Barry and the sweet, shy indie kid Dick--subscribe to the maxim that what matters is what a person likes, "not what they are like." Thus they search for meaning in musical minutiae, compiling endless lists and flaunting their connoisseurship.

As the film begins, Rob is being abandoned by his live-in girlfriend, Laura. Mired in a self-pitying funk, he decides to track down his partners in other failed relationships, hoping to discover the reasons he's forever being abandoned.

It soon becomes clear that Rob's not quite the victim he imagines himself to be. We soon begin to see just why Laura left--Rob had an affair while she was pregnant, which led her to have an abortion, and he continually refused to commit to her.

Unlike the book, the movie can't quite get us rooting for Rob after revealing his relationship crimes. Partly, this is because the actress who plays Laura, Iben Hjejle, is so good that she steals our affections away from Rob.

Another problem is the horrifically irritating Jack Black, who plays Barry. The characterization of Barry is the one place where the film truly diverges from the novel--not so much in dialogue, but in spirit. While the book took place in London, the movie is set in Chicago, and there's a world of difference between Barry the scathing, insensitive British bloke and Barry the obnoxious, loud, overbearing American.

That said, there are hilarious moments in High Fidelity. In one maliciously delicious scene, Rob fantasizes about beating up Laura's insipid new beau, Ian, a smug pony-tailed wanker portrayed with squirming hilarity by Tim Robbins.

Not surprisingly, High Fidelity also boasts an astounding soundtrack. The consistently great music means that watching High Fidelity is never unpleasant. Still, one of the film's messages is that you can't build a grown-up life around pop songs alone, no matter how poignant. The same, it seems, holds true for movies.


High Fidelity (R; 113 minutes), directed by Stephen Frears, written by D.V. Devincentis, Steve Pink, John Cusack and Scott Rosenberg, photographed by Seamus McGarvey and starring Cusack and Iben Hjejle, opens Friday at the Palo Alto Square.

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From the March 30-April 5, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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