"High Fidelity," novelist Nick Hornby's dead-on portrait of a music-obsessed underachiever's romantic travails, has attracted a loyal cult audience. And no wonder: The book nails what it meant to be a relatively young pop-culture junkie in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Its protagonist, Rob Gordon, is nominally bohemian and beset by insecurities that prevent him from settling on a career or finding anything that resembles true romance.
Like the very music snobs the author deflates in his prose, Hornby's fans have loudly protested Hollywood's transplantation of "High Fidelity" from its London setting to Chicago for cinematic purposes. But pop obsession is pop obsession, and the issues of import to single folks -- the search for an emotional connection, the quest to fit in -- lose nothing in the transatlantic migration. Director Stephen Frears and his four credited screenwriters don't allow us the free access that Hornby offered to the inner mind of record-store owner Rob (John Cusack), but what film adaptation can?
Cusack, who co-produced the movie and collaborated on the screenplay, matches the hip, cynical self-deprecation Hornby built into the character. Rob, who in his early 30s is unwilling to hope for anything more than a day's chatter with the clerks at his Championship Vinyl store, is shaken when his attorney girlfriend, Laura (Iben Hjejle), suddenly leaves him. Her reason: He refuses to grow up in matters either personal or professional. Rob is thus driven to re-examine his past loves. An inveterate list-maker -- best first tracks on albums, best songs about death -- he compiles his top five breakups, revisiting them in flashback. He then seeks out a series of old flames, including chatty, exotic Charlie (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and needy, unstable Sarah (Lili Taylor).
But most of the movie's high points concern Rob's bantering and bickering with his co-workers. Jack Black is hilarious as Barry, an abusive elitist and wannabe rock star, and Todd Louiso is similarly quirky as Dick, a painfully shy guy with a musical agenda of his own. Tim Robbins makes a funny impression as Ian, a pony-tailed vegetarian who briefly absconds with Laura. Rob's fantasy of a violent confrontation with his rival is a laugh-out-loud moment, one of several in a flawed but smart comedy that works more often than it doesn't.