Vinyl Jeopardy

High Fidelity -- you read the book, now CD movie

Nothing makes much sense for misguided Rob, and the narrative's sole paternal figure is merely a motivational tool, whose death pushes Rob into a new level of understanding. So it's not surprising that the beautiful loser flirts and falls through life, with or without Laura around. He's wildly jealous of the Ian situation (coming to a head in one of the screenplay's wildest, meanest, most gut-bustingly hilarious additions to the book), yet he takes his own high infidelity in stride, using conquests to keep his fractured ego alive. Balancing this rough trade is Laura's prying associate Liz (Joan Cusack, clearly in need of a hot tub and a Bundt cake), who hounds Rob about playing doggie style or stalking Ian. Watching this knight in shining vinyl struggle to get happy, get it on, get it together is at once a sigh and a scream.

Cusack was born to play this role, and he inhabits the soul of Rob with incredible authority, but he's also been working toward this ever since he flailed around with Anthony Michael Hall in Sixteen Candles. Back then, he was just a generic dork, but here he's King Dork, holding what seems like ultimate court, giving Jeff Goldblum's similarly themed dork fest in The Tall Guy some stiff competition. The eyeliner and the thick hair seem a bit unlikely for this character, but the actor is ripening into maturity, wearing a man's mask of previously undetected worry and strain, and perhaps this is his final kiss-off to dorkdom. After displaying the nobility and rage of a fellow whose primary means of communication is making compilation cassettes, who knows what roles await him?

The four screenwriters and Frears have taken liberties with Nick Hornby's astute, acidic novel, adding Bonet and a subplot about musical skate rats in what seem to be attempts to widen the audience demographic. Of course, transplanting the action from London to Chicago is the shakiest shift, but the affection for the Windy City renders the change about as significant as that of Rob's surname, from Fleming to Gordon. A few lines are swapped and a very funny subplot about a priceless record collection seems to have been shaved at the last minute, but the amputation of Hornby's cynicism and self-loathing seems to be the most damaging surgery. In the book, for instance, the absence of a condom is transformed into a hurtful gesture of abstinence; in the movie, we get a cute and clumsy love scene. The creators have made good use of most of Hornby's wit and woe, but they should have used it all, to intensify both the laughter and the pain, a formula Frears has put to the test in The Snapper and My Beautiful Laundrette.

Hornby's relationship philosophies may be trimmed a little too tidily here, but, thankfully, the novel's pop spirit makes it to the screen unscathed, with a fairly amazing array of blinding tracks and deafening colors. The record-shop boys and their snobbery add a constant kick, but, by the end, Rob remembers why music is a gift, and a fine balance is achieved, prompting a popular (and often utterly inaccurate): It's all good.

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