Broken Record

High Fidelity reproduces the language of Nick Hornby’s novel but fails to capture its drama. 

High Fidelity
Directed by Stephen Frears
Buena Vista Pictures 

High Fidelity displays unusually high fidelity to Nick Hornby’s mordantly funny novel. The setting has shifted from London to Chicago to accommodate the star (and co-screenwriter and co-producer), John Cusack, but much of Hornby’s dialogue is intact, and the movie opens and closes with bright narration from the book. The thinking must be that if you adapt a novel that’s low on plot and characterization but has a hip voice, you don’t throw out its sexiest feature. You ought to do more with the prose than simply stick it in the mouth of the lead actor, though. The story of a sourly self-absorbed jerk who can’t fully share himself with anyone becomes the story of a guy who never stops yammering.

Still, there’s a lot to enjoy in High Fidelity. It has been directed by Stephen Frears in a style that’s appealingly scruffy, and Cusack is as likable an aging slacker as you could ever hope to hang with. Cool actors such as Tim Robbins, Lili Taylor, Lisa Bonet, and Catherine Zeta-Jones pop up; and Bruce Springsteen offers guy-to-guy advice while strumming an acoustic guitar. Cameos, flashbacks, zany fantasies, scenes repeated with different outcomes: The movie is a slacker’s Annie Hall (1977). It’s entirely pleasant—well worth seeing. But why does a film in which the protagonist spends so much time buttonholing the audience and complaining about his history of screwed-up relationships seem so lacking in intimacy?

Hornby’s novel was a bag of tricks, too: It had lists of girlfriends, movies, pop songs; it hopped around in time. But it also had a desperate, careering quality, along with an escalating sense of loneliness and dread. Maturity didn’t come naturally to the narrator: He had to be terrified into it, and the pace of his progress was grueling. A couple of times I felt like throwing the book into the air and screaming. Had Hornby been spying on the most embarrassing moments in my life? More likely, he’d somehow put his finger on those shaming crises we all experience that say: Evolve or be miserably stunted forever.

The movie lacks the power of the book because it hasn’t been fully dramatized. I blame this on the current vogue for narration, once regarded by moviemakers as a no-no and now considered de rigueur. Narration can be helpful, of course. Reviewing a stage adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, Kenneth Tynan complained that the most important figure in the work had been left out: Jane Austen, whose running commentary on her characters turned a rather humdrum romance into one of the most penetrating portraits of courtship ever written. Narration can underline, contradict, and fill in the action of a play or movie, but nowadays screenwriters are bringing it in too early, before the work of building scenes has even begun (instead of as a last resort when dialogue can’t take them any further). The upshot is that movies are turning into slide shows with commentary, and they’re arm’s-length experiences.

High Fidelity is full of sensational, Hornby-derived lines, but they don’t always fall easily on the ear. Take the novel’s prologue, in which the narrator, Rob, tells his freshly departed girlfriend, Laura, that she hasn’t made the list of his top five most devastating breakups. “If you really wanted to mess me up,” he concludes, “you should have got to me earlier.” The acid in that sentiment nearly eats through the page, but in the movie it gets shouted out of a window at the fleeing lover, and it sounds too literary, too obviously facetious—not something someone would scream in the heat of the moment. Worse, it suggests that the hero is a hysteric from the outset.

I t’s almost criminal the way the central relationship of High Fidelity has been left such a void. Laura, the yuppie lawyer who’s meant to embody what Rob really needs—warmth, true intimacy, a sense of permanence—is played by Iben Hjejle, a Danish actress who was powerfully sexy as a prostitute-turned-domestic in Mifune. I almost can’t believe it’s the same person here: The bloom is gone. Why import a sultry Danish actress, starch her up, and force her to speak with an American accent that shuts down her personality even further? Weren’t there any American actresses to humiliate? Cusack ends up having a much jollier rapport with the “shallow” lovers: Zeta-Jones, who seems merrily intoxicated by her own gorgeousness, and Lili Taylor, who in a few brief moments transforms geeky longing into poetry. He seems happier still with Laura’s hostile friend, played by his sister, Joan Cusack, whom he resembles more closely every year: They’re the most comfortable match in the movie. Only poor Laura—the supposed ideal partner—seems out of the loop.

There is a quartet of screenwriters—Cusack, D.V. DeVincentis, Steve Pink, and Scott Rosenberg—but none of those 40 fingers is on the emotional pulse of the material, and the only time there’s no narration is when it actually would come in handy. One of the most memorable scenes in the book features a sulky Rob slipping out of Laura’s father’s funeral and then hiding from her car by leaping into a muddy flower bed. It’s his most tarnished hour: “Every time I think I have got to the bottom,” Hornby writes, “I find a new way to sink even lower, but I know that this is the worst, and that whatever happens to me from now on, however poor or stupid or single I get, these few minutes will remain with me as a shining cautionary beacon.” In the movie, Cusack emerges into a deluge of biblical proportions, the flower bed in which he throws himself is a virtual lake, and Laura calls out to him as soon as he splashes down. The key to his bottoming out—the prolonged, sodden agony of his humiliation—is traded for lame slapstick.

The best scenes in High Fidelity are not the most confessional ones (the glory of Hornby) but the ones that play like Saturday Night Live sketches. Cusack’s Rob owns a secondhand record store, Championship Vinyl, that’s largely patronized by nerd collectors, the kind of misshapen young men who know the price of every old LP and take fetishistic pleasure in slipping the platters out of their sleeves and eyeballing their grooves. This is the quintessential perpetual-adolescent setting, the sort of place where boys worry over the minutiae of pop culture while their lives slip away. The scenes are mini-showcases for the actors playing Rob’s two clerks: Jack Black (the heavy guy from Tenacious D), a brash loudmouth who chews out the customers for lousy musical taste or uncool behavior, and Todd Louiso, a skinny fellow with a shaved head, collapsing shoulders, and an apparent brain impediment—he takes so long to choose his next word that his dullness seems exponentially multiplied.

It’s too bad that in his narration Rob talks about the sexual thrill of making compilation tapes for prospective romantic partners but is never shown actually putting one together. (The credits list 59 pop songs, but only a couple last more than a few bars.) It would be great to see him actually doing something for someone. High Fidelity makes relentless fun of Laura’s new boyfriend (a hilarious Tim Robbins), a yuppie with a sitar-loving, Gandhiesque demeanor, and we’re supposed to laugh at him especially hard for fussing over a bowl of homemade tomato sauce. It’s lucky that Rob had the advantage of being able to blab in our ears for two hours, because the choice might not have otherwise been so easy. That sauce looked pretty tasty.