Almost every aspect of life can be analyzed, dissected, and then reconfigured as a simple top-five list. For Rob Gordon, the self-centered, music loving protagonist of 'High Fidelity,' this tactic has become something of an obsession. To him everything can be broken down into numbered bullet points -- even his relationships. A music powered trip through romantic purgatory, the film chronicles one man's attempts to understand his doomed love life. Marked by insightful humor, candid observations, and a great cast, the movie rises above usual formulaic fare, and offers an entertaining look at men's various narcissistic insecurities.
Based on Nick Hornby's excellent novel of the same name, the story follows a self-absorbed record store owner, Rob (John Cusack), who has recently broken up with his girlfriend (Iben Hjejle). Unsure why all of his relationships end up failing, he starts to retrace his top-five breakups, directly addressing the audience as he analyzes his past. While he searches for answers to his relationship woes, he continues to deal with customers and his two eccentric employees (Jack Black and Todd Louiso) who prove to be little help in his quest for enlightenment. Finally confronted with his own faults and delusions, Rob will have to decide if he wants to continue living like a selfish adolescent or finally grow up and attempt real love.
Breaking the fourth wall is always a dangerous proposition. The tactic often runs the risk of becoming gimmicky, or worse, downright annoying. While there are instances that start to skirt close to the latter, thankfully that's never really the case here. Instead, Cusack's frequent monologues aimed directly at the camera serve to enhance the storytelling, and help to give the film a unique voice. His laidback, depressed, gloomy observations serve as a cinematic confessional of sorts, placing the audience directly in his mindset and forging an intimate bond between character and viewer. In many ways, Rob isn't very likeable, but his self-aware narration helps to enlighten his unsavory behavior in an honest, matter-of-fact way.
Though a seemingly nice guy on the outside, the character can be a contradictory, self-absorbed jerk, and through it all, the script does a good job of keeping him well-rounded and multifaceted. His numerous on-screen couplings reveal all of the paradoxically narcissistic and insecure anxieties that secretly (or not so secretly) run through men's minds during relationships. Cusack and his various romantic co-stars (who include Catherine Zeta-Jones, Lisa Bonet, and Lili Taylor) all share nice chemistry, illuminating different aspects of Rob through their separate relationships. Of course, the character's most recent breakup becomes the focus of the film's central plotline, and Iben Hjejle is perfectly cast as Cusack's latest and possibly greatest love. The duo seem natural and effortless together, whether happy or tearing each other apart. Cusack's expressions of furious, restrained rage and envy upon learning various details about her new boyfriend are particularly hilarious. Speaking of said new boyfriend, special note should also go to Tim Robbins who serves as an antagonist to Rob, becoming one of cinema's most laughable on-screen douchebags.
In addition to its humorous insights on relationships, the film also presents a fun, loving send-up of record store culture and elitism. Obsessive and arrogant, the trio that run the store take their music very seriously, leading to some of the movie's funniest moments. Together, Cusack, Black, and Louiso serve to balance each other out, and run the full gamut of temperaments. In a career defining role, Jack Black is hilarious, lending the part of Barry his trademark comedic passion and fury. While the actor's shtick has arguably grown stale in recent years, here his eccentric man-child persona could not be more appropriate, and he often steals every scene that he's in. On the complete opposite end of the spectrum is Todd Louiso as Dick. Quiet and meek, the actor imbues the character with an odd, quirky charm that serves to counteract Black's more outlandish behavior. Their interactions in the record store, hating on customer's selections and endlessly coming up with new top five lists, are among the film's most entertaining scenes.
Under Stephen Frears direction, the film fuses humor and drama wonderfully. Jealousy, selfishness, and love all come together in an angst-ridden comedy full of clever writing, interesting characters, and inventive filmic beats. Through Rob's arc, the filmmakers show a man stuck, doomed to repeat the same mistakes unless he finally addresses his issues and attempts real growth. Bucking many traditional romantic comedy cliches, the narrative rarely takes the easy way out and instead resorts to a messier, and in some ways, much more realistic path, resulting in a perceptive, frank, and entertaining journey. Using music as its metaphoric (and in some cases literal) guide, 'High Fidelity' becomes a cinematic mix-tape of emotion, comedy, and candid observations that all serve to enlighten and entertain.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Touchstone Pictures brings 'High Fidelity' to Blu-ray on a BD-50 disc housed in a keepcase. After some skippable trailers, the disc transitions to a standard menu. The packaging indicates that the release is region A, B and C compatible.
The movie is provided with a 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer in the 1.85:1 aspect ratio. While more consistent than the other simultaneously released John Cusack flick ('Grosse Pointe Blank') the transfer still has some issues.
The print is in great condition with no notable damage. A light layer of grain is visible throughout, but I did detect a slight waxy quality in some shots. While subtle, this might indicate some light digital processing. Overall clarity is also fairly soft, especially in wide shots which lack fine detail. Close-ups fare better, but are never particularly impressive. Colors are nicely saturated with a natural palette. Contrast is well balanced and black levels are consistent with nice shadow delineation. Thankfully, edge enhancement is not a problem but I did detect some minor stabilization issues that caused the frame to faintly vibrate in a few isolated shots.
The image is never very sharp or deep, but the picture still has an overall pleasing look to it. There are indications of some light processing, but the end results are not especially worrisome. While I seriously question the packaging's claims that this is a new digital restoration, for the most part, this is a solid transfer regardless.
The film is provided with an English DTS-HD MA 5.1 track and an additional French Dolby Digital 5.1 track and Spanish Dolby Digital 2.0 track. English SDH, Spanish, and French subtitles are also available. The mix has some bright spots, but is slightly hindered by a small soundstage and minor balance issues.
Dialogue is clear and audible throughout with no distortion. The soundfield is relatively tiny with a very frontloaded presentation. Faint ambiance hits the rears, but outside of a few scenes that feature a rainstorm, there is rarely any real sense of immersion. Directionality and imaging are sparse but there are some isolated effects that transition about the room when appropriate (a moving train pans to the rears). Thankfully, the film's killer soundtrack features nice separation and a pleasing "high fidelity" sound. Dynamic range is wide but balance between quiet and aggressive scenes is a little uneven. Bass activity kicks in during some of the songs and a few scenes set in a thumping club.
'High Fidelity' isn't terribly enveloping, but the mix is free of any major problems. The track can get quite loud during more lively moments and while mostly frontloaded, the dialogue and music heavy presentation works well.
Touchstone has ported over the special features from its previous DVD release. All of the supplements are provided in standard definition with Dolby Digital 2.0 audio and the same subtitle options as the main feature.
While it might not break into my all time top-five list of romantic comedies, 'High Fidelity' is still a strong example of the genre done right. Clever and perceptive, the script is full of interesting, honest, and funny observations about relationships from the male perspective. The video transfer shows some signs of processing but still looks quite solid, and while a little frontloaded, the audio mix complements the story well. Some new supplements would have been nice, but the included special features are decent. This release isn't a true standout, but the film holds up very well and the disc is solid. Recommended.