John Cusack, at his best, has made a career out of playing two disarmingly similar character types: those who feel like losers, but are actually cooler than anyone else in the room (see his roles in The Sure Thing, Say Anything..., and Grosse Pointe Blank), and those who think they're cooler than anyone else in the room, but are actually losers (The Grifters, Bullets Over Broadway, and Being John Malkovich).
One of the many joys of the new comedy High Fidelity is the way Cusack, director Stephen Frears, and the screenwriting team (D.V. DeVincentis, Steve Pink, Scott Rosenberg, and Cusack himself, adapting Nick Hornby's beloved novel) incorporate both archetypes into Cusack's character Rob, a thritsyomething record-store owner unsuccessful in love, making him both hyper-aware of his failings and completely unaware of them at the same time. By doing so, they give us a wonderfully complicated, supremely entertaining lead character in the first near-great movie of the year.
Employing a Rob-talking-to-the-camera technique that could have been annoying in less capable hands, we learn of Rob's disastrous history with women, culminating in his break-up with Laura (Iben Hjejle), who may be the love of his life. With Rob's play-by-play narration, we see his five most heartbreaking break-ups, and watch as Rob analyzes what went wrong with each of them, and what it is about him that causes women to leave. Interspersed with these scenes is life at Rob's record store, Championship Vinyl, where he's aided by the wan, frighteningly introverted Dick (Todd Louiso) and the overbearing, utterly self-righteous hipster wannabe Barry (Jack Black).
With its holier-than-thou record snobs, direct addressing of the camera, and eclectic musical selections, High Fidelity runs the risk, as many a Cusack character has done, of being tragically hip, coming off as a smarty-pants pretender. This it doesn't is testament to the enormous gifts of the filmmakers and cast. Frears and his superb editor, Mike Audsley, manage to walk the fine lines between comedy and drama, and pretension and honesty, throughout, and their sequences have true zing; you're never sure how a scene will play itself out, and when it does, it seems like the most logical way imaginable. Frears' pacing here is always smart, and although he tends to overdo the suffering-in-the-rain scenes, his staging is impeccable. He brings a lot to the project, not the least of which is the brilliant direction of numerous acting talents.
Cusack, as you might imagine, is sensational (he's one of the few actors I'd happily watch address the camera in movie after movie), smart as hell, but missing a great deal of self-awareness, which makes his sometimes loathsome character rather endearing. It's a good thing that Cusack is on his toes here because the movie could easily have been stolen by its supporting crew. Louiso and Black are a magically well-matched comedy team - Louiso (underused since Jerry Maguire) with his deft underplaying, Black (in the first great film role he's had) with his laugh-out-loud tirades at anyone who doesn't share his tastes. And they're just the tip of the character-actor iceberg: the peerless Joan Cusack steals several scenes, Tim Robbins makes a juicy cameo, Lili Taylor creates a whole, complex character out of a few throwaway moments (it's great seeing her teamed with Cusack again... remember her hysterical folk-singer-in-training in Say Anything...?), and Lisa Bonet, Sara Gilbert, Natasha Gregson Wagner, and the too-stunning-for-this-world Catherine Zeta-Jones all score as well.
The only thing that keeps High Fidelity from true greatness is its lack of a truly romantic co-star for Cusack. The Danish actress Ibsen Hjejle has a few poignant moments, but she seems a brittle, somewhat remote character (it doesn't help that she combines the feyest elements of Patricia Arquette and Robin Wright Penn), and as awful as Rob can sometimes be, you still like him enough to wish he'd find someone more... well, lively. (The role of Laura needs an actress with more shading and a greater vivacity - Minnie Driver would have been perfect if she hadn't already been seduced by Cusack in Grosse Pointe Blank.) But even without a terrific romantic pairing, High Fidelity is an almost-unqualified success, a witty, sharp, clever comedy that often manages to be much more than that.
THE ROAD TO EL DORADO
It was hinted at in The Prince of Egypt and now it's official: Dreamworks' animated movies are going to be exactly like Disney's animated movies. I refer to Dreamworks' The Road to El Dorado, a work which is such a carbon copy of the Disney recipe that you can't believe a different studio released it. True, the leading characters (voiced here by Kevin Kline and Kenneth Branagh) occasionally let a four-letter-word slip out, and engage in a bit of rear-view nudity, but is that really a plus if every other element is such a blatant rip-off? You get the same predictable plotting and characters, the same funny animals, the same maniacal villains, and the same dreary-as-hell musical score. (Unlike their work in Disney's The Lion King, none of Elton John's and Tim Rice's songs here will improve with age.) Oh yeah, you also get the same "clever" line readings by a capable cast, but what's the point when the lines they have to read are so monotonously unfunny? God knows Kline and Branagh are more welcome in The Road to El Dorado than they were in last summer's abysmal Wild Wild West, but was there really a possibility that they could ever be worse?