It's hard to escape the potent magic of pop music. Some consumers never do, hovering forever in thrall to three-minute sermons of neurotic idiocy blasting from the commercially conjoined pulpits of R&B, rock and country. In transmutations both alienating and horrifying, advanced pop fans occasionally evolve into stultifying snobs. For instance, I had a friend who would have kissed Bruce Springsteen's theatrically thrashed boots before condescending to enjoy David Byrne's solo work, because he deemed Springsteen's hangdog mythos "real" and Byrne's loopy anthropology "unrelatable." Akin to the dysfunctional discophiles of Stephen Frears' wildly amusing High Fidelity, that friend and his peckish pop diet illustrated an unhappy paradigm: The more persnickety and self-righteous the musical tastes become, the more the conquests and relationships dissolve into cheap melodrama and tragic self-delusion ... elements that are, of course, the very lifeblood of pop music. Q.E.D. As John Cusack morosely ponders in the film's opening moments: "Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to pop music?" Reel around the fountain and spin the black circle, indeed.
Cusack plays Rob Gordon, owner of a groovy, largely untrafficked Chicago record shop. As funny as he is forlorn, Rob haunts his treasure vault with his two indispensable if near-intolerable friends, the nervous, fanatical Dick (Todd Louiso) and the profoundly obnoxious Barry (Jack Black, mouth almighty of Tenacious D). In one of his countless asides to the camera, Rob explains that he hired his fellow thirtysomethings on a part-time basis, but they've insisted upon showing up every day for the past four years. The reason? These guys adore their work. They while away the hours concocting Top 5 lists of songs, records and entertainments for every imaginable occasion, battling each other with encyclopedic reservoirs of music trivia and otherwise avoiding anything to do with the responsibilities of mortal life on this planet, all with the smug assurance of dealers harboring the finest stash in town. Rob calls them the "musical moron twins," but the boffins are also his closest friends, and they keep his floundering business alive.
Rob's love life is another story. His main squeeze, Laura (Iben Hjejle, Danish for "Arquette"), has recently outgrown her adolescent existence, and the ambitious young lawyer leaves Rob for a former neighbor, a pony-tailed New Age aura-balancer named Ian (Tim Robbins). This development wrecks Rob's mother (Margaret Travolta), who in turn hammers her son for repeating his rhythmic pattern of domestic failure. Thus Rob, who never meant to cause Laura any sorrow, explores the ghosts of failed relationships in a special Top 5 list of women who eviscerated him, minus Laura, who doesn't initially make the cut. "If you really wanted to mess me up," he bellows at her departing Saab, "you should have got to me earlier!"
Rob decides to scan his heartbreakers, leading us through flashbacks of adolescence, his failed attempt at college, and young adulthood. The first relationship of young Rob (Drake Bell) with playground sweetheart Alison (Shannon Stillo) lasts a total of six hours, ending when the girl decides to try kissing a different boy. But the anguish resonates to the present day. As the elder Rob tells us, "It'd be nice to think that, since I was 14, times have changed, relationships have become more sophisticated, females less cruel, skins thicker, instincts more developed. But there seems to be an element of that afternoon in everything that's happened to me since. All my romantic stories are a scrambled version of that first one."
The accuracy of that appraisal is left for us to judge as Rob's awkward and unpleasant flashbacks continue, prompting him to seek out his former flames to ask them The Awful Question That Cannot Be Answered: "Why?" Wholesome beauty Penny (Joelle Carter) maintained Carly Simon, Carole King, James Taylor, Cat Stevens and Elton John on her Top 5 list of artists and now works as a film critic. Shallow beauty Charlie (Catherine Zeta-Jones) used him as cosmetic grist for her mill and now, a few men later, feels love is "too much hard work." With bitter Sarah (Lili Taylor) it made sense "to pool collective loathing for the opposite sex ... and share a bed, too," but Rob discovers he's a man out of time and she's just pills and soap. Besides, Romeo is restless for a vivacious siren named Marie De Salle (Lisa Bonet), who shamelessly croons Frampton and claims wanton coupling as her inalienable right.
Nothing makes much sense for misguided Rob, and the narrative's sole paternal figure is merely a motivational tool whose death pushes Rob into a new level of understanding. So it's not surprising that the beautiful loser flirts and falls through life. He's wildly jealous of Ian (a situation that comes to a head in one of the screenplay's wildest, meanest, most gut-bustingly hilarious additions to the book), yet he takes his own high infidelity in stride, using conquests to keep his fractured ego alive. Balancing this rough trade is Laura's prying associate Liz (Joan Cusack), who hounds Rob about playing doggie-style or stalking Ian. Watching this knight in shining vinyl struggle to get happy, get it on, get it together is at once a sigh and a scream.
Cusack was born to play this role and inhabits the soul of Rob with incredible authority, but he's been working toward this ever since he flailed around with Anthony Michael Hall in Sixteen Candles. Back then, he was just a generic dork, but here he's King Dork, holding what seems like ultimate court. The eyeliner and the thick hair seem a bit unlikely for this character, but the actor is ripening into maturity, wearing a man's mask of previously undetected worry and strain, and perhaps this is his final kiss-off to dorkdom. After displaying the nobility and rage of a fellow whose primary means of communication is making compilation cassettes, who knows what roles await him?
Frears and the four screenwriters -- D.V. DeVincentis, Steve Pink, Cusack and Scott Rosenberg -- have taken liberties with Nick Hornby's astute, acidic novel, adding Bonet and a subplot about musical skate rats in what seem to be attempts to widen the audience demographic. Transplanting the action from London to Chicago is the shakiest shift, but the affection for the Windy City renders the change in significant. A few lines are swapped and a very funny subplot about a priceless record collection seems to have been shaved at the last minute, but the amputation of Hornby's cynicism and self-loathing is the most damaging surgery. The creators have made good use of most of Hornby's wit and woe, but they should have used it all, to intensify both the laughter and the pain, a formula Frears has put to the test in The Snapper and My Beautiful Laundrette.
Hornby's relationship philosophies may be trimmed a little too tidily here, but, fortunately, the novel's pop spirit makes it to the screen unscathed, with an amazing array of blinding tracks and deafening colors. The record-shop boys and their snobbery add a constant kick, but by the end Rob remembers why music is a gift and a fine balance is achieved, prompting a popular (and often utterly inaccurate) catchphrase: It's all good.
Opens March 31.