John Cusack is a wily devil. It isn’t enough that he’s been drinking from the fountain of youth since the last time he worked with British director Stephen Frears on "The Grifters" in 1990, with Annette Bening and Anjelica Huston, but the 34-year-old man/boy actor has cornered a cool piece of the film market with a confident brand of spry urban ingenuity. Ironically, his many past roles, from "Say Anything" to "Being John Malkovich," seem to have all been leading to his humorous and fully-realized portrayal of a self-defeating hopeless romantic record collector named Rob Gordon. Cusack seamlessly glides between fourth-wall breaking docu-style exposition, flashback sequences, and in-the-moment experiences to expose multiple layers of unflinching male romantic mentality.
"Some things you never get used to, even though you’re feeling like another man."
That quote, taken from the Elvis Costello song "High Fidelity" from his 1980 album "Get Happy," underscores the kind of post-modern angst that Rob suffers through in his relationships with women. Rob views his past relationships much like his favorite songs, through a filter of "top five" lists that his recent romantic failure with Laura (Iben Hjejle - [pronounced EE-ben YAY-lay] Mifune) doesn’t rate against in his list of "Top Five Most Memorable Break-Ups." Each past affair had its own charms (as are revealed in soul-searching flashbacks), but always within a recurring motif of self-perceived rejection that Rob seeks to undo by revisiting a few of his past girlfriends and questioning them about their reasons for giving him the boot — although, as it turns out, he did his share of rejecting too.
While Rob might seem, on first take, like a case of narcissistic arrested-development, he’s an above average guy with a job that falls within (even if it’s at the bottom) his top five choices of employment. He’s one of those rare human animals that really cares enough about his past intimate relations to attempt to not repeat past mistakes. If his methods seem silly at first, by midway in the movie, the audience is brought around to seeing beneath Rob’s childish facade. The movie’s finest gift is that it lets the audience embrace the whole of Rob’s idiosyncratic character and uncover, with him, the germ of love that desperately longs to breed.
Rob owns and manages a semi-failing record store in Chicago, that specializes in vinyl records, with the help of geeky discophiles Barry (Jack Black) and Dick (Todd Louiso). These guys are walking encyclopedias of musical knowledge and are only too happy to bully customers and each other with their mastery of all musical minutiae. Frears sets a new watermark in mise en scene with his exacting attention to the cluttered record store’s details, that include visual treats like album covers from bands like "The Damned" and posters from iconic bands like "The Silos." When Dick impresses Anaugh (Sara Gilbert) with his musical prowess by playing "Suspect Device"--by the Stiff Little Fingers--it’s an near-religious moment of punk bliss. The soundtrack weighs heavy in favor of The Velvet Underground, but there are lots of other pop music treasures from artists like John Wesley Harding, Al Green, and Aretha Franklin that keep the movie percolating at a warm tempo.
Rob believes that it’s not what a person is like that’s important, but what they like, that reveals their real personality. He’s of a very specialized breed of male, born in 1963, who always seem to be ducking the bullets that caught up with John F. Kennedy. Although Cusack is a few years behind Rob's birthday, he has an uncanny grasp of that breed’s convulsive and obsessive attitudes toward sex, life, and especially romance. Between Cusack’s work on co-writing the script for "High Fidelity" and his priceless performance lies the rock ’n’ roll heart and soul of a guy for whom audiences deserve to stand in line.
Rated R. 113 mins. (A) (Five Stars)