Lately, I’ve been blasting the new album by Said the Whale during my morning commute. And this track has made me nostalgic for the endless hours I used to spend browsing record shops.

It’s also made curious to revisit a movie set in a record shop that I admired almost twenty years ago now: Stephen Frears’ adaptation of Nick Hornby’s novel High Fidelity.

Before I do, I’m revisiting my review, just to refresh my memory about the conversations and arguments that went on in the hours and days after the film’s release. And I’m amused by several things:

  • I identified Jack Black as “an ever-present supporting actor in Tim Robbins’ films.” Little did we know that he would become a comedy superstar on a variety of stages.
  • I really believed that we’d get a sequel to Grosse Point Blank. I still wish we had.

Here’s the original review:

[This review was originally published at The Phantom Tollbooth.]

“Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable?” Rob Gordon (John Cusack) asks, “Or was I miserable because I listened to pop music?”

Good question.

Rob is a thirtysomething record-store manager and part-time DJ in downtown Chicago who has reached a point of introspective crisis. Yet another girlfriend is breaking up with him. He doesn’t know why, he’s broken-hearted, and worse, he’s fed up with being rejected. When his live-in lover Laura (played by Danish actress Iben Hjejle) packs up and ships out, he decides to get to the bottom of this perpetual misfortune once and for all. He sets out on a journey back through the infidelities and disasters of his romantic history.

The journey has two parts: a swim in the sea of self-pity as he listens to the music that formed the soundtrack to his love life, and a frantic interrogation of past girlfriends in hopes of reaching enlightenment.

I get the impression Cusack made this film chiefly so he could advertise his favorite records to the world. Music—specifically, vinyl—is Rob’s life. From the first moment of the film, the records are spinning. His apartment walls house thousands of LPs in plastic sleeves, carefully organized autobiographically, in order of their significance through the course of his life. He’s a walking pop-culture encyclopedia, also a master of the fine art of making compilation cassettes, and an obsessive list-maker. He is unable to carry on a conversation about anything or anybody without referencing the music he associates with the subject. He lists for us his Top 5 heartbreak songs (yes, he talks to the camera between chapters, and even during scenes) as he describes his Top 5 breakups. Katrina and the Waves, the Pretenders, Pavement, Bruce Springsteen, Marvin Gaye, Massive Attack—endorsements of his favorites shout out from the screen at every turn. You can expect a run on the recordings of The Beta Band after this movie opens; Rob plays their stuff in the store and stands back to watch the customers (and the audience) catch on.

Music is the one thing Rob understands, and so he’s most eloquent (and understood) when he’s with others who speak the same language. Thus, while he wishes it were otherwise, Rob’s closest confidants are his slacker Championship Vinyl co-workers. Through long and feverish debates about personal taste, we come to know Dick (Todd Louiso), a small, softspoken, and sensitive guy who listens to Belle and Sebastian; and Barry, a Chris-Farley-like Tasmanian devil who likes obscene lyrics and thrashing guitars (Jack Black, an ever-present supporting actor in Tim Robbins’ films). Barry’s crass sense of humor and explosive temper win him arguments with everyone but Rob, who calls his bluff when things look to turn violent.

The storytelling slows to a standstill in these scenes, and Barry’s over-the-top behavior gets too much screen time. But the chemistry of these three is certainly entertaining, and audiences are sure to leave with a title or two to look up next time they visit a music store.

Aside from his search for enlightenment in musical nostalgia, Rob hopes to get some answers from the experts themselves. His ex-girlfriends (played by Catherine Zeta Jones, Lili Taylor, and Joelle Carter) are a gallery of extremes. And perhaps they have more to say on the subject of his incompatibility than he bargains for. Flashbacks show us Rob “on the make” at all different ages. Of the three exes, Carter struck me as the most convincing, while Zeta-Jones is cold and glamorous and Taylor merely spooky. Lisa Bonet, in a performance that should win her an invitation back into the Hollywood spotlight, arrives as a possible new romantic adventure, but serves in the end only to demonstrate just how selfish and reprehensible Rob can be. After all, here’s a guy who’s broken up because his girlfriend might be unfaithful, and he worries about it while he himself sleeps around.

Not that Rob’s precious Laura is a paragon of virtue. In fact, she has teamed up with a new man—a grotesquely Yuppified neighbor named Iain (Tim Robbins). Robbins makes Iain the most memorably disgusting character since John Turturro’s hyper-arrogant bowling champion in The Big Lebowski. As his only function in the story is to provoke jealousy and grand romantic gestures from Cusack’s Rob, Robbins has a lot of room to embellish his character, and what he does earns the biggest laughs in the movie.

Rob’s pursuit of Laura and his pursuit of self-awareness lead him to some hard realities, and he sinks deep before his climb to understanding. These characters, as winning as they are, strike some frightening and mean-spirited blows to each other. We learn about all manner of infidelities and even an abortion. The days of the cute Cusack dating comedies are over. But the story does not get sidetracked by melodramas that would have proven irresistible to other directors. It stays focused on Rob, on what it is that disqualifies him from long-term relationships.

John Cusack was born to play a self-defeating champion of unrequited love. He’s walking a career path within shouting distance of Woody Allen there. And he’s got that sarcastic but well-meaning voice down so well that he’s writing his own scripts. He wrote his best film, Grosse Point Blank, with D.V. DeVincentis and Steve Pink, and that same team adapted High Fidelity. (He’s also talking about a sequel to Grosse Point Blank.) In my opinion, only Woody Allen has mastered the art of “knocking down the fourth wall” and addressing the audience directly. It’s tricky. Here, Cusack’s persistence makes it work most of the time, and his monologues give him a chance to show off Chicago’s scenic spots. But characters that interrupt an otherwise convincing scene to explain something to the audience only remind the audience that this is a movie, and the intensity of a real situation gets spoiled. I wish there had been less talk and more show. The music explains enough as it is.

There is also far too much rain in this movie; it arrives like clockwork whenever Rob gets rejected, just so he can walk home looking like a wet dog. I kept expecting to hear the classic Police refrain—”I’ve stood here before inside the pouring rain / it’s my destiny to be the king of pain.” That, at least, would have been clever.

But these are small complaints. This film is what they call “a return to form” for director Stephen Frears, who showed us a corrupting combination of lust and power in Dangerous Liaisons and found wry laughter in painful circumstances in The Snapper. His ability to make something meaningful and memorable out of such different explorations is truly impressive. (Maybe audiences will now forgive him for Mary Reilly.) He helps Cusack and Company transplant Nick Hornby’s novel from London to Chicago quite successfully. And by refusing to glamorize Rob’s romantic antics, he steers clear of romantic comedy conventions without sacrificing relevance.

Best of all, Iben Hjejle makes Laura the strongest, most interesting leading lady in many a romance. She’s fiercely intelligent even though she makes rash and hurtful decisions. Most importantly, she’s immune to grand gestures of romantic superiority from the leading man. The leading ladies in most romantic comedies exist to exhibit weakness so a man can come along and save them with intelligence, cleverness, or brawn. Laura is flawed and vulnerable, but she’s also formidable, and if she goes back to Rob it will be because she has come to that decision on her own terms, and for that she wins our respect.

The more I thought about it afterwards, the more I realized just how much convention the film defied. It’s a comedy, so of course things will turn out okay, one way or the other, in the end. But High Fidelity refuses to tell you why things will turn out alright. Laura’s “womanly wiles” are as mystifying to the males in the film as they would be in real life, so Rob never discovers any big secret to winning her back. He just keeps wrestling with his personal demons. And that itself is a worthwhile story. While he may never come to understand or change his girlfriend, he can certainly learn to change himself. Instead of “happily ever after,” we’re left with a new beginning, a possibility of renewal. Even as I wondered why a smart girl like Laura would be interested in a slacker like Rob, I knew that guys throughout the audience were nodding and smiling, quite familiar with such unanswerable questions. And the women were smiling too, keeping to themselves the reasons that they are sometimes drawn to thick-headed, oafish, and insecure men. C’est la vie.