One of the frustrating things about the onslaught of enormously popular, self-consciously "male" cultural products—from Limp Bizkit and Korn to Maxim to The Man Show—is that their view of masculinity is monumentally reductive and condescending. There's obviously more to being a man than drinking beer, leering at women, and breaking stuff, and one of the wonderful things about the Stephen Frears-directed High Fidelity is that it offers a sensitive, probing, mature take on the inner workings of the male psyche at a time when much of popular culture has adopted a much simpler masculine ideal. Co-writer and co-producer John Cusack stars as a Chicago record-store owner; he's such a musical obsessive that music doesn't provide a soundtrack to his life so much as life informs his appreciation and understanding of music. As High Fidelity opens, his latest girlfriend (Iben Hjejle) has just dumped him, and the rest of the film chronicles his attempts to make sense of his romantic past and its enduring legacy. In the aftermath of Pulp Fiction, pop-culture references have become an obnoxious film cliché, but one of many great things about High Fidelity (adapted from Nick Hornby's terrific book) is that it understands the psychological importance music plays in its protagonist's life. Cusack's compulsive habit of compiling countless musical lists closely parallels his desire to understand his present romantic situation by endlessly rehashing and analyzing his romantic past, but the key difference is that his obsession with music gives him a safe place free from the anxiety and uncertainty that defines his life. A film pragmatic enough to concede that almost every relationship is doomed, but romantic enough to realize that it's worth it to carry on in spite of that fact, High Fidelity is one of the smartest and funniest romantic comedies of the past few years. Normally, an actor writing or co-writing his own movies is an ego-fueled recipe for disaster (Major Payne, The Razor's Edge), but with High Fidelity and Grosse Pointe Blank, Cusack has helped create two of the finest Cusack vehicles since Say Anything.
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