'High Fidelity' skips its groove

Hopes have run high for "High Fidelity," one of the most promising Hollywood packages this year.

John Cusack plays Rob, the proprietor of a Chicago record store (yes, records - the old-fashioned vinyl kind) that might turn a profit if the staff could stop insulting the customers for a minute. Music is the second-most-important thing in Rob's life. The most important is romance, and he's doing poorly in that department since his girlfriend left him for another man.

Tired of the failure that has dogged his romantic trail, he decides to track down his past girlfriends to learn why they dumped him. This sparks a series of encounters and reunions that teach him more than he wants to know about his own personality and the demands of adult relationships. He also finds time to banter with his shop assistants and strike up a new affair with a gorgeous singer.

The movie alternates between Rob's interactions with the women in his life and his antics at the record store. This allows for a wide range of moods, from lovelorn wistfulness to lowdown farce, all accompanied by conspicuously hip music. Lending additional spice is Rob's habit of speaking to the camera, making us privileged visitors to his private world.

Add a remarkably diverse cast - Jack Black as a wannabe rock star, Joan Cusack as a trusty friend, Lisa Bonet as Rob's new flame - and you have all the elements for a surefire entertainment. Or do you?

The ingredient that lowers "High Fidelity" is its screenplay, penned by no fewer than four writers (a frequent sign of behind-the-scenes trouble) and so scattered and meandering that individual scenes rarely gather the emotional energy they need. Instead of burrowing into Rob's life, we feel like we're skimming across it, as if one of his goofy employees kept switching from one so-so record to another when we'd rather hear a good one from start to finish.

Admirers of director Stephen Frears - better known for dramas like "Dangerous Liaisons" and "My Beautiful Laundrette" than for comedies like this - might want to catch it, and Cusack fans will get their fill. But others may find its channel-surfing style too superficial for comfort.

* Rated R; contains sex, foul language, and brief violence.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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