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On March 17, 2000, the John Cusack-starring film hit Austin for its premiere at the South by Southwest Festival. The film, based on the Nick Hornsby novel, ended up grossing $47 million worldwide and, two decades later, a TV series of the same reimagined the source material. The Hollywood Reporter’s original review is below:
A smart, funny and youth-savvy relationship film, Stephen Frears’ High Fidelity should score well with post-college-age viewers, who will identify with the film’s commitment-phobic take on issues of love and work and its passionate belief in the centrality of music in forming self-definition. This relatively faithful adaptation of Nick Hornby’s beloved music-culture novel played to wildly enthusiastic acclaim at the South by Southwest Film Festival.
The film’s Chicago locale is its primary deviation from the book, where the story took place in London. Otherwise, lines of dialogue and the story’s interior monologues are transferred from the novel with most of their acerbic wit and music-drenched knowledge intact.
John Cusack, who co-produced and co-wrote with his Grosse Pointe Blank partners D.V. DeVincentis and Steve Pink, stars as Rob Gordon, the owner of a none-too-successful record store. Celebration Vinyl is a temple of popular music knowledge and free-ranging tastes, presided over by Rob and his two employees, Dick (Todd Louiso) and Barry (Jack Black). The triumvirate rules its tiny domain with the fervor of unrecognized music czars, subjecting customers to the self-anointed infallibility of their own musical tastes.
These three underappreciated music connoisseurs are also inveterate list makers, constantly tossing off hilarious topics for new top 5 lists. In addition to providing a source for much of the movie’s humor, these lists provide the underpinning of the movie’s structure as well.
Beginning as Rob’s live-in girlfriend (Iben Hjejle) walks out on him, High Fidelity traces the course of his top five relationships with women, as Rob believes that he will discover the source of all his problems if he figures out why each of these relationships went sour.
His search through his past takes the form of a male confessional. He addresses the audience directly in a running commentary on his life and actions, a technique that mimics the novel’s first-person narrative structure. While Cusack is engaging and believable as the story’s self-absorbed narrator, the tactic still leaves the film itching for a stronger sense of plot direction.
Rob’s observations are insightful and funny, picayune and revealing. Yet there is a certain narrative slackness that comes with realizing the only organizing principle here is Rob’s revisitation of old relationships.
Still, there is something comforting about Cusack’s turn as Rob; he seems as if he is playing a continuation of Say Anything‘s Lloyd Dobler — only a few years older and a tiny bit wiser. Any possible aversion to the movie’s “guy” spirit is precluded by Cusack’s engaging appeal to both men and women.
A strong cast of supporting players enlivens the story. Girlfriends run the physical and dispositional gamut from Lili Taylor to Catherine Zeta-Jones. Tim Robbins and Joan Cusack are also on hand for particularly distinctive comic turns.
As Rob’s employees, Louiso and Black contribute to the film’s authenticity, playing their roles as encyclopedic music geeks and feisty best friends with telling verve and body language. Black, in particular, delivers a full-throttle comic performance that should bring him to the attention of casting directors who have heretofore relegated him mostly to bland background roles. Bruce Springsteen also appears in a surprise cameo.
Technical credits are excellent. Chicago is used as an authentic backdrop, and the production design of the record store and surrounding music scene is rich is realistic detail, as are the costuming and soundtrack by music supervisor Kathy Nelson. The direction by Stephen Frears is solid though unshowy, allowing the focus of the movie to reside in its wonderful characters and atmosphere. — Marjorie Baumgarten, originally published March 20, 2000.
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