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The Dobler effect: John Cusack in High Fidelity

I dreamed this morning that I was watching a Clash reunion show. On a cruise ship. I stood in an intent crowd, surrounded by people who couldn't have been alive in the first punk era. The dream didn't tell me whether the reunited Clash were any good. It related only the experience of watching: my rush of memory and the inevitable failure of the present to catch up to it, the younger fans' too-sweet nostalgia for a time they would never know.

My brain was probably preparing to review High Fidelity, a film about the tardy coming of age of an "alternative"-music fan boy, played by John Cusack. Adapted from Nick Hornby's novel, it explores the attraction of fetishized passions--for old loves and old (punk) music. But like Grosse Pointe Blank, the last movie Cusack helped produce and write in addition to starring in, High Fidelity doesn't hit the dock without meta-baggage. It, too, can be read as an attempt to create an anti-(Lloyd)Dobler effect: a way to pick up and smash the burdensome anchor of Cusack's teen-movie successes (Say Anything, The Sure Thing) so that his career is no longer pictured as a long slope away from significance.

In Grosse Pointe Blank, Cusack played a sleek assassin--the ironically tagged "hit man," which the perennially mid- to low-level actor is patently not--romancing a pissed-off high school flame (the moviegoer?) at a reunion. Here, he is Rob, a Chicago record-store owner whose lover (us?) is dumping him--not for his sins (although he has those), but for his stuck-in-a-ruttedness. Via unglamorously shot addresses to the camera, the terminally uncool Rob (he wears peglegs!) tries to explain to himself and the viewer why he'll miss Laura (Iben Hjejle), though he cheated on her; why he can't keep a relationship going; why the next girl, or the last, is always better than the present one. The habit Rob is 'fessing to, and that Cusack is mocking, has everything to do with fickle movie fanship and celebrity worship.

Within the movie, of course, Rob's romance patterns fit neatly with his music consumption patterns, both being glibly dysfunctional. How entertaining you'll find Rob's eventual attitude breakdown depends on whether you sympathize with his confusion as a man and fan, or whether you appreciate the critique running underneath that confusion. Actually, your enjoyment may depend on how happy you are to get sympathy and critique in the same breath: As both novel and film, High Fidelity is maddeningly two-faced, racing to and away from nostalgia with equal enthusiasm--and tonal unevenness. In other words, there's an abundance of smart dialogue and deserved Rob humiliation alongside plenty of "honest" grunty-grunt stuff--including the imagined bashing of a rather "feminized" romantic rival and more fucks than I've heard since high school.

Cusack was a professed punk (remember that Clash shirt in Say Anything?), and this is, in a way, his kiss/kiss-off to that passion (the soundtrack reaches from Stiff Little Fingers to Edith Frost and Eric B. and Rakim). From the comments of forty- to sixtysomethings around me (e.g., "That was the worst movie I've ever seen"), I doubt prepunk audiences will get the film--and not only because of the music trivia. The Springsteen cameo notwithstanding, there's a postpunk sensibility at work here, one that includes: the exploration of gender by way of irony, an embrace of awkwardness, the casual assumption of a cultural underground, and, yes, a sly self-consciousness. On a less lofty note, I suspect that the appeal of Jack Black--who plays an aggressively obnoxious clerk at Rob's store--does not reach past the Animal House generation.

I haven't even mentioned director Stephen Frears. That's because it appears that Cusack and his co-writer and -producer pals are really at the helm of this movie. High Fidelity runs on Cusack's career references (here's Lili Taylor, from Say Anything!), his pop-music interest, his persona as an Everyguy midway between asshole (Black) and wimp (the other clerk, Todd Louiso). It's his goal to revamp that most famous Cusack character, Lloyd Dobler, as a man with a creative plan, and not just a fan in love with love (and the Clash). It's down to the appeal of his Dobler charm--even as he ridicules and dampens it here--whether you find his progress to that goal funny-if-flawed or flat-out tedious. Coasting on my own wave of nostalgia, I was tending toward the former. Then I saw myself in the audience, the dream ended, and I decided I'd given enough rope to a romantic comedy that's all about the boy.


High Fidelity starts Friday at area theaters.

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