Lists, Laughs and Lust: A Loser’s Chicago Tale

Stephen Frears’ High Fidelity , from a screenplay by D.V. DeVincentis, Steve Pink, John Cusack and Scott Rosenberg, and based on the book by Nick Hornby, continues Mr. Cusack’s career-long crusade against commitment. Well, not exactly commitment. In Cameron Crowe’s Say Anything (1989), Mr. Cusack plays the feckless frog pursuing Ione Skye’s fairy princess with recurring spasms of futility and maladroitness. In Mr. Frears’ The Grifters (1990), Mr. Cusack’s light-fingered con man is crushed by Anjelica Huston’s merciless mother and Annette Bening’s treacherous mistress. In George Armitage’s Grosse Pointe Blank (1997), our frantic non-hero chases after a girl (Minnie Driver) he once jilted. And so on into High Fidelity with Mr. Cusack’s Rob more immature and irresponsible than ever.

This time he is musing over the ruins of a half-dozen relationships with recalcitrant members of the opposite sex. In between his frequent philosophical asides addressed directly to the camera, he haphazardly runs a Chicago record shop named Championship Vinyl in which Rob and his two helpers, dessicatedly deadpan Dick (Todd Louiso) and bullying pop-music snob Barry (Jack Black), often outnumber the customers. But not to worry. Dick and Barry are the funniest Laurel and Hardy comic team since the two French farceurs in The Dinner Game (1998).

Indeed, Mr. Cusack’s character gets a lot of credit for keeping Dick and Barry on the payroll, along with a lot of laughs. We rejoice when Dick finally gets a girlfriend, and Barry ultimately backs up all his bluster with a rousing turn as an unexpectedly talented rock performer. The pop-music-trivia-bull-session games played by this threesome have reminded some reviewers of Barry Levinson’s Diner (1982), but High Fidelity here has an edge with the sheer zest and variety of its roster of sweet-and-sour female delights. Topping these is the fresh-faced, critically underrated Danish actress Iben Hjejle (from Mifune ) as Laura, Rob’s main squeeze and final resting place.

As the star and co-writer of High Fidelity , Mr. Cusack demonstrates here as he did in Grosse Pointe Blank that he can be a driving force in a certain kind of movie, one that energizes a deceptively sweet romanticism with dramatic excitement. I have not read Mr. Hornby’s highly regarded London-set book from which the movie is derived. But though the locale has been switched to Chicago, even Mr. Hornby has endorsed the adaptation, and well he should. Mr. Frears has managed for the most part to retain the velocity of the narrative without sacrificing the psychological coherence of the characters. I say “for the most part” because I have a slight problem with Mr. Cusack’s Rob trying to have it both ways by switching on occasion from a Holden Caulfieldish insistence on anti-phoniness to a manipulative, make-out cynicism when the opportunity for a quick score arises.

Not that the babes in High Fidelity fall for any line for very long. Catherine Zeta-Jones as the eternally worldly Charlie is particularly striking in that her parody of coldly ceremonial sensuality without an ounce of emotional sincerity reveals a hitherto unexplored flair for comedy. Not far behind in panache and pizazz are the distinctively nuanced characterizations of Lili Taylor, Natasha Gregson Wagner, Lisa Bonet, Shannon Stillo and Joelle Carter. Like the late François Truffaut, Mr. Cusack is clearly a man who loves women, though again like Truffaut, perhaps too well. Fortunately, the balance between romance and humor is maintained with the aid of two outstanding comic cameos by Tim Robbins as Laura’s temporary diversion, Ian, a New Age paragon with a ponytail, and Joan Cusack as Liz, Rob’s quasi-sisterly best woman friend with a short fuse.

Sadly perhaps, my biggest problem with High Fidelity is my virtually complete ignorance of and proud insensitivity to the very music ostensibly responsible for the delayed adulthood of Rob, Dick and Barry. This is a problem I have had for a long time with MTV-scored movies-just about everything after the Beatles. It is all just obtrusive and often distracting noise to me. Just say that I am trapped in a Jerome Kern-Miklos Rosza time warp, and I don’t want to make the effort to get out.

It’s not that I don’t recognize the making-lists mania of males, a practice I have personally indulged in since childhood. But the areas in which I and my buddies specialized on the trivia level were sports, politics and movies. I somehow never hung out with guys with record collections from the pop charts. Consequently I am still trying to figure out if Franz Schubert (1797-1828) is as all-important, more even than Mozart, Bach and Beethoven, as recent French film-makers seem to think. Still, the fact that the producers of the make-a-million TV shows can never get enough women contestants to make the final cut shows that guys use trivia as they always have-to avoid growing up.

Sandra Bullock, on the Wagon

Betty Thomas’ 28 Days , from a screenplay by Susannah Grant, manages to make more whoopee on the trendy subject of rehab than did the self-indulgently dreary Girl, Interrupted. Much of the whoopee, however, is strenuously vulgar and more stereotype-driven than character-driven. Still, my hunch is that Sandra Bullock may have a modest commercial hit on her hands after a long string of critical and commercial flops.

I can’t say that I lose sleep at night worrying about “Sandy’s” career, but some of my best and most intelligent friends have been carrying a torch for her ever since she won their hearts in Speed (1994), While You Were Sleeping and The Net (both 1995). These “hits” were not all that good, and her subsequent “misses” were not all that bad, but lately she seemed to be jinxed in her choice of projects. Hence, she was probably smart to place herself in the hands of director Betty Thomas and screenwriter Susannah Grant.

This is not to say that Ms. Thomas will make anyone’s directorial pantheon after such anything-for-a-laugh riots as Doctor Dolittle (1998), Private Parts (1997) and The Brady Bunch Movie (1995). Yet each of these crassly calculated commercial projects turns out to be efficiently made and subtly better than anyone had a right to expect on the sacrificial altar of mass cult. My own conclusion is that 28 Days is as funny, and at times as horribly funny, as anything I’ve seen this year.

Ms. Bullock’s Gwen Cummings, an apparently upscale New York writer, starts off the movie with an expressionist excess of an alcoholic binge with her similarly upscale British boyfriend Jasper (Dominic West). The morning-after hangover was not a pretty thing to watch either. But this is only the beginning of the film’s cautionary footage on the evils of drink. Gwen hurriedly dresses in her bridesmaid’s costume for her sister Lilly’s (Elizabeth Perkins) suburban wedding. Naturally she gets disgustingly and destructively intoxicated,

drives off on a drunken fool’s errand, crashes into a house, and that’s all she wrote until Gwen shows up for a court-ordered 28-day rehab in a quaint but closely monitored rural retreat.

Gwen is thrust unbelievingly into a communal atmosphere in which people chant and hug from day to night. Because Gwen is played by Ms. Bullock, the audience is encouraged to share her quiet amusement at the antics of her fellow camper-addicts. No cell phones are allowed and there’s no fraternization, romance or sexual contact between the rehabbers. For breaking the rules the punishment is simply expulsion, which in Gwen’s case means serving out a jail sentence.

Ms. Thomas, Ms. Grant and Ms. Bullock are taking a big chance here by making their lead character so thoughtlessly obnoxious. But this risky strategy eventually pays off when we realize that something interesting is being said about all destructive addictions. Actually, not all, because smoking is permitted on the premises, though not encouraged. Drugs and alcohol thus take center stage, and amid all the slapstick humor provided by a gallery of geeks, more than a few serious moments intervene to remind everyone on and off the screen what a powerful enemy these pathetic rehabbers are facing in their search for a cure.

Even when we learn that Gwen’s father deserted the family when she was little, her mother subsequently died of acute alcoholism and older sister Lilly was always jealous of her (as Gwen reveals in a tearful guilt-ridden “family” session), she finally acquires the wisdom to realize that all her childhood troubles are more excuses than reasons for her addiction.

The main problem is that she has grown to love the taste and effect of liquor, and she must learn to hate it. In the process she must dispose of Jasper, as reassuring an enabler as only the upperclass Brits can be when they charmingly replace matter with manner. Many other things happen, some ridiculous and some melodramatic, but the big thing for Gwen is that she has grown spiritually from the diseased good times to the healing quiet times, and that process is at least usefully therapeutic if not majestically cathartic. Steve Buscemi is great too, as always.

Lists, Laughs and Lust: A Loser’s Chicago Tale