A review requested by Cammy, with thanks for contributing to the Second Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy ACS Fundraiser.

High Fidelity is a movie that sounds on paper like it should be an obnoxious slog in the company of obnoxious men whose sense of sexual entitlement is treated with the utmost admiration and gravity, and I will confess that, having not seen it almost since it was brand new in 2000, my memory is that it was just that. But it's in fact closer to exactly the opposite. This is perhaps the genius of novelist Nick Hornby, whose book served as the film's basis (with a trans-Atlantic transplant to Chicago), and whose special gift lies in describing the behavior of undermatured men, allowing them full range to speak their mind, and thereby show off what shallow assholes they're capable of being. If I end up slightly preferring 2002's About a Boy, another Hornby adaptation that maybe wouldn't have existed without this one, that's mostly because there's something about his arch irony that feels a bit more organic when it comes with a British accent attached. Though High Fidelity isn't without its British bona fides: it was directed by Stephen Frears, a rather terrific chronicler of everyday urban life in England, though he's spent most of the years since High Fidelity trying to scuttle his reputation. At any rate, Frears brings to the project a certain brusqueness that serves it immodestly well, while capturing the lovingly over-detailed Chicago locations with the clear-headed non-romanticism of an outsider with a flair for depicting the feel of a place.

That place ends up being a non-incidental component of what makes High Fidelity work: the star, co-producer, and co-writer, John Cusack, native of the Chicago suburbs, obviously sank a lot of energy into making sure the film was a love letter to the city as much as it was anything else. Or rather, while it's only specifically about Chicago because of the immodest glut of locations called out by name, it's still very particularly about the physical environment that its main male characters wrap around themselves: the streets, the storefronts, the decor. High Fidelity is a very set-intensive movie, though aggressively naturalistic about it: the film is, at heart, about the kind of person who lets his identity by an outgrowth of his collection of Stuff, and it follows that closely observing the way he arranges and lives within his Stuff is one of the most important aspects of the film. Rob Gordon's (Cusack) Stuff is vinyl records, which carries with it a lot of very specific cultural baggage; but as a single man of about the same age with my own very exhaustive wall of Stuff in the form of DVDs and Blu-rays, I will enthusiastically attest to the accuracy with which the design team captured the way that such a person foregrounds his collection at home and, far more importantly to the film's narrative, the music store he owns.

Rob, early in the film, has just ended the latest in a long string of flared-out relationships, with Laura (Iben Hjejle), and has decided to go about the task of soul-searching in the only way that a pop culture obsessive knows how: he makes a list of his most traumatising break-ups and re-lives them, including revisiting the women in question, anatomising himself like an article in a magazine. That's about half of the film. The other half involves us simply watching as he and his employees/sole apparent social circle, Barry (Jack Black) and Dick (Todd Louiso) fuck around in their privileged little world of self-consciously arcane musical tastes and commodity fetishisation. Both halves feed into each other to contribute to the character sketch that the movie cares about infinitely more than it wants to chase down drama: this is a portrait of who Rob is and why that makes him such an impeccable turn-off to women and, more to the point, why he's so effortlessly good at rejecting the women who make it inside his blast radius.

I think the biggest reason that I didn't care for the film when I saw it in 2000 was that I hadn't, at that point, clocked what made Cusack an interesting actor: it's not the sweet guy charisma of his breakthrough in Say Anything... or his later straight romantic comedies, it's his amazing ability, when he sets his mind to it, to bend that charisma into a nasty prickliness. In Cusack's hands, Rob isn't a terribly likable figure: he's a peremptory, arrogant brat, given to loudly declaiming his intentions of rigorous self-analysis but always finding a way to let himself off after having begged for pity, and reliably willing to put even us, his confidants - the film's most overt stylistic gesture is to let Rob narrate his thoughts directly to the camera - in the role of the idiots that he lords his superiority over. He is, in fact, a thorough jackass, and this makes High Fidelity not a film about a fella finally getting lucky in love, but a film about a fella figuring out that he needs to stop being a raging dick and maybe he'll actually be worthy of the women who keep entering his orbit.

The film is at its best when it depicts the kind of hothouse environment in which this kind of egotism grows: the alienating, obsessive world that happens when a bunch of guys with the same interests all start to compete with each other to prove who is the most deeply entrenched in that world - Cusack's itchy, borderline angry performance is great, and so is Black's loud, snotty enthusiasm for being the most cynical and savvy in the room. Its depiction of pop culture obsessives, always quick with a reference, a game, a list-making exercise, is flawless, punched up with comedy that keeps it from being too bleak as it identifies with laser focus why these guys are stalled in one place. Where it stumbles is in its attempts to sell its romantic plot thread: partially because it does such a great job of convincing us that Rob has issues and is hard to be around that it's weird that Laura keeps not avoiding him, old habit or no. And it's also hampered by Hjejle's rather addled performance, which partially answers my other complaint: the reason she keeps letting him back into her life is because she's a flake. At any rate, a film that offers cameos to Lili Taylor and Catherine Zeta-Jones as some of Rob's most prominent exes needed to hunt a little harder for a romantic lead who could hold down the women's side of this film that's so dominated by the insular behavior of man-children.

That lack of a strong counterbalance hardly scuttles the movie - honestly, the romantic half of the film is present more to flesh out its depiction of Rob's bad behavior and desire to change than it's there to do anything in its own right. But it does leave the film a bit more hollow in patches than it could be. There is a sturdier High Fidelity out there. There is not, however, apt to be a funnier one, and probably not one that does a better job of capturing the ways that a certain brand of masculinity finds ways to turn its most glaring weaknesses into supposed strengths. It's not perfect, but boy, is it ever accurate and insightful.