[Screen It]

(2000) (John Cusack, Iben Hjejle) (R)

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Romantic Comedy: A single man examines his failed romantic relationships after being dumped by his latest girlfriend.
Rob Gordon (JOHN CUSACK) is a thirty-something, single man who's just been dumped by Laura (IBEN HJEJLE), his live-in girlfriend, for Ian (TIM ROBBINS), the guy who used to live above them. Rob can't believe this turn of events, but then again, he realizes this is yet another failed romance in a string of them that extends all the way back to middle school.

While trying to figure out why he's always being jilted, Rob runs his barely profitable music store, Championship Vinyl. There, he and his two workers, the timid Dick (TODD LOUISO) and the boisterous Barry (JACK BLACK) spend their days debating about, and making "top five" lists of most anything related to music, the more obscure the better.

As Rob laments over Laura and hopes she'll change her mind and move back in with him, he recounts his five best, or worst if you will, breakups of all time. Those include being jilted by Charlie (CATHERINE ZETA-JONES), his perfectly idealized woman from college, as well as Sarah (LILI TAYLOR) who was on the rebound like him when they met. Then there was Penny (JOELLE CARTER) from high school and even Alison (SHANNON STILLO) from middle school who was the first to break his heart.

While Rob eventually figures out he must confront the women from his past to understand himself and move on with life, he also finds himself attracted to an avant-garde singer, Marie De Salle (LISA BONET), while also dealing with Laura's best friend, Liz (JOAN CUSACK). Coming to grips with his past relationships, Rob must then decide what to do about Laura.

OUR TAKE: 6.5 out of 10
Despite their relatively short running times, songs have the ability to implant themselves deeply into our individual and societal psyches. Just ask any adult who can effortlessly sing the lyrics to a song they haven't heard since they were in their teens, yet at the same time probably can't remember enough high school material to graduate again if they had to, let alone score highly on the S.A.T.s.

That could be due to the old American Bandstand, "It's got a good beat" element that plays directly to the reptilian part of our brains. Then again, perhaps it's because many songs hit upon most every aspect of the human condition with which all of us can identify.

Of course, among the many subjects that songs can cover, those dealing with issues of love seem the most popular. While many couples have an identifying song they call their own and everyone can appreciate the excitement and energy found in positive love songs, those that address the negative side of romance are often best identified with, especially when the listener is in the same lovelorn boat as the singer or songwriter.

If there's anyone who could identify with such songs, it's the amusingly constructed character played by John Cusack in Stephen Frears' "High Fidelity." A comic tale of a despondent thirty-something who finally breaks after being dumped once again in a succession of rejection that spans back to his middle school years, the film may have something of a rambling and seemingly unorganized plot. Yet, the way in which the characters are drawn and interact, including the witty dialogue that's spoken, turns the film into an entertaining and enjoyable diversion.

While the sound of the basic plotline might seem to suggest that the film could go any number of different directions - from having the character snap like Michael Douglas in "Falling Down" to succumbing to complete neurosis as occurs in most Woody Allen films - this one turns out to be something of the latter as filtered through David Letterman crossed with Ferris Bueller.

That's because Cusack's character has a habit of "breaking the fourth wall" and talking directly to the audience (a la Matthew Broderick in "Ferris Bueller's Day Off") when not making - along with his record store employees - various "top five" lists of the best songs for any number of differing occasions. While it's obvious that neither element is particularly novel, the way in which director Frears ("Dangerous Liaisons," an Oscar nominee for "The Grifters") and co-screenwriters Cusack, Scott Rosenberg ("Con Air," "Beautiful Girls") and D.V. DeVincentis & Steve Pink ("Grosse Pointe Blank") interweave them into the story works rather well.

In fact, the sharp and witty dialogue is what makes the film - that's based on Nick Hornby's 1995 novel of the same name - so much fun. Although the inclusion of the above elements may sound too cutesy and/or gimmicky to work, both manage to be effective in adding additional layers of humor to the already funny story that's obviously easy to identify with for anyone who's ever been in the same shoes.

It obviously doesn't hurt, however, to also have a gifted actor such as John Cusack ("Being John Malkovich," "Grosse Pointe Blank") in the lead role. Never one to shy away from playing gritty roles, that rough around the edges quality works well here as Cusack laces it with enough humor and pathos to create a memorable character. As his two subordinates, Jack Black ("Cradle Will Rock," "Enemy of the State") and Todd Louiso ("Jerry Maguire," "The Rock") deliver fine supporting comedic takes, with the former stealing every scene he's in with his demented sales clerk character.

Playing the girlfriend/catalyst that sets the plot in motion, Danish actress Iben Hjejle (making her American film debut) is good in her role, while her striking physical features are apt to make audiences wonder if that Arquette family is still pumping more offspring into the acting business. Actor/director Tim Robbins ("The Player," "Arlington Road") has an amusing, extended cameo as her somewhat transcendental lover.

The always wonderful Joan Cusack ("Cradle Will Rock," "Working Girl") is a bit shortchanged as far as screen time and material is concerned, while actresses such as Catherine Zeta-Jones ("Entrapment," "The Mask of Zorro"), Lili Taylor ("The Haunting," "The Impostors") and Lisa Bonet ("Angel Heart," TV's "The Cosby Show") are good in their limited roles as various women who torment Bob in one way or another during the film.

If there's one fault the film exhibits, it's a meandering plot that never really gathers any momentum - comedic or otherwise - as it wanders and ambles from start to finish. Just when you think you've got it figured out, the plot simply strolls off in another direction. While it's not a horrible or debilitating problem and the film's strengths easily make up for it, a bit more focused direction could have made the film far sharper.

For music fans, the film features a great soundtrack - as it should for a story that's often set in a record store - that does prevent things from ever getting boring whenever the comedy isn't present. Although the film isn't a masterpiece by any means and will probably make a rather quick beeline toward the video stores (Mr. Cusack, alas, is not a major box office draw), for those who favor strongly drawn, if quirky characters, witty dialogue and/or have ever been dumped sometime in the past, this movie might just sound right to them. As such, the entertaining and occasionally hilarious "High Fidelity" rates as a 6.5 out of 10.

Reviewed March 22, 2000 / Posted March 31, 2000

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