"High Fidelity", based on the novel of the same name by Nick Hornby, is more of a character study than your typical three-act story. The minimalist plot explores the romantic misadventures of one Rob Gordon (played by John Cusack of "Being John Malkovich"), the neurotic owner of "Championship Vinyl", a small record shop in Chicago that specializes in LPs (what music used to be on before CDs). He's a self-declared and self-absorbed expert on the minutiae popular music, and spends most of his days forcing his musical taste onto those he deems worthy in the 'unwashed masses' of the musically illiterate. He spends countless hours categorizing and thinking up top five lists for the vast repository of knowledge he possesses, whether they are for taste in music or the numerous romantic failures in his life.
At the beginning of the story, his latest romantic failure, Laura (Iben Hjejle of "Mifune"), has just walked out the front door. This event triggers a lengthy bout of nostalgic retrospection on his 'top five break-ups', spanning from his first love in the seventh grade, to a perfect woman (Catherine Zeta-Jones of "Entrapment") he met in college, and to a rebound relationship with a basket case (Lilli Taylor of "The Haunting") he had before meeting Laura. In an attempt to better understand his rotten luck with the women of his past, Rob even begins revisiting his 'top five' ex-girlfriends to ask them why things went wrong. He also has a fling with a local musician (Lisa Bonet of "Enemy of the State" and "The Cosby Show" fame), but in the end, Rob still finds himself hung up on Laura, who he is convinced is 'the one'.
As he undergoes this process of emotional catharsis, Rob goes about his normal routine of trying to keep his record shop in the black, a task which is made almost impossible by his hired help, who are as self-absorbed in music geekdom as he is-- loud-mouthed Barry (Jack Black of "I Still Know What You Did Last Summer") openly shows his disdain and lack of respect for the musically-challenged customers, while the timid Dick (Todd Louiso of "Jerry Maguire") is unable to relate to other people unless it is in the context of music. Meanwhile, Laura has moved on with her life, having moved in with a new-age ponytail-wearing guru named Ian (Tim Robbins of "Mission to Mars"), which naturally enrages Rob.
While watching the film, you may recognize Rob from the people in your life, whether he is in the guise of the world traveler who insists that you pronounce it as 'Pa-ree' instead of 'Paris', the university professor who will regale you for hours on the why the United States Civil War was more about commerce than human rights, the Trekkie who insists that the 'Original Series' was way better than the 'Next Generation', or the movie critic who tries to convince you that "Night of the Living Dead" is a masterpiece of filmmaking. Regardless of who they are and what they like, it all boils down to the same thing-- the need for control. Rob is a man who needs some semblance of control in his less-than-glamorous life, and he would rather devote his energy to analyzing and manipulating what he already knows, whether it be music or his halcyon days, instead of compromising himself by opening up to the unknown that lies ahead. In a sense, Rob is perpetually 'thinking' instead of 'doing', and 'talking' instead of 'listening', which is the root of all his problems.
Like last month's "The Wonder Boys", "High Fidelity" is a character-driven piece, and those in search of the typical three-act story will find the film's uneventfulness somewhat frustrating, since the entire film deals with the ramblings of its main character. Indeed, Cusack spends most of the screen-time conversing with the audience in a series of soliloquies, which does become tiresome and gimmicky after awhile. As a comedy, the laughs are not uproarious either-- they tend to be more subdued as the characters belt off lines of subtle yet razor-sharp wit to each another. Thankfully, director Stephen Frears ("The Snapper") also remembered to include the strong characterizations and accompanying performances that make such a film work, despite its liabilities.
The character of Rob builds on Cusack's sharp with and strength in playing hyperactive and eccentric individuals who are a little too smart for their own good. Danish actress Hjejle, in her North American debut, acquits herself nicely in playing Laura with nary an accent. Black and Louiso frequently steal the scenes in the record shop as the two aspects of Cusack's character taken to the extreme, while Zeta-Jones and Taylor have memorable turns as Rob's ex-girlfriends. Two cameos to watch out for are Bruce Springsteen, who gives Rob some advice in a whimsical aside, and Keanu Reeves ("The Matrix"), who shows up as an unrecognizable metal-head.
Those expecting a no-holds barred broad comedy may come away from "High Fidelity" disappointed. Though the film does deliver some laughs with the quirky antics of two terrific supporting performances, some interesting comic set pieces, and an unconventional narrative style, not a lot happens in "High Fidelity"-- other than a man coming to terms with his own faults while finding the courage to give up a little bit of control in exchange for some happiness.