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High Fidelity

"What came first," Rob Gordon (John Cusack) desperately wants to know, "the music or the misery?"

Over-stimulated by the sounds coming out of his outsize headphones, morose Rob is seizing the moment of his breakup with Laura (Iben Hjejle) to reflect on "the thousands of hours of heartache, rejection, pain, misery and loss" he experienced while exposing himself to wave after wave of popular music. "Did I listen because I was miserable," he wonders, "or was I miserable because I listened?"

Further proof of how funny we can be when we're at our most despondent, "High Fidelity" is a sharp and satisfying romantic comedy about the difficulty of commitment that utilizes Stephen Frears' incisive direction and some very knowing and sophisticated writing to give actor Cusack one of the best roles of his career.

That is saying something, because Cusack, talented as well as shrewd about what he gets himself into, doesn't go in for weak material. Rob Gordon, a part Cusack had a hand in writing, is specifically tailored to his everyman persona, to his gift for intimacy with the audience and his ability to humanize characters who are difficult and potentially off-putting.

The last time out for Cusack and writing partners D.V. DeVincentis and Steve Pink was "Grosse Point Blank," in which the actor played a hit man with a career crisis; "High Fidelity" presents them with a character who faces a less lethal kind of challenge. (Scott Rosenberg of the glib "Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead" and "Con Air" also gets a writing credit.)

The Cusack pack had the advantage of starting from Nick Hornby's fine novel, a delightful book that is very savvy about the vagaries of relationships, especially from the male point of view. It's Rob, using either voice-over or direct talk to the camera, who preserves the book's first-person quality as well as chunks of its dialogue. "High Fidelity" presents him as someone who's his own worst enemy, a tortured and grumpy eternal adolescent who doesn't have to hide his weakness for being a real jerk to gain our sympathy.

Given his opening rant about the pernicious effect of lyrics, it's not a surprise that Rob's life is pop music. He owns Championship Vinyl, a Chicago establishment (smoothly moved from the novel's London) that's a shrine to old-fashioned phonograph records and mecca to obsessive geeks who "spend a disproportionate amount of their time looking for deleted Smiths singles and 'ORIGINAL NOT RERELEASED' underlined Frank Zappa albums."

This universe's two biggest geeks, Dick and Barry, a.k.a. "the musical moron twins," just happen to work for Rob, and as played by Todd Louiso and Jack Black are the comic center of the film. Dick is the sensitive flower while Barry is rowdy, abrasive and downright hilarious. They join Rob in insulting the customers, making abstruse jokes about the Beta Band and Ryuichi Sakamoto and constructing an endless number of all-time Top 5 lists, from Top 5 dream jobs to Top 5 songs about death ("Leader of the Pack," "Dead Man's Curve," "Tell Laura I Love Her," etc).

Though the Championship Vinyl store (magnificently created for the film by a crew that includes production designers David Chapman and Therese DePrez, art director Nicholas Lund, set decorator Larry P. Lundy and property master Timothy W. Tiedje) is real enough to be a character in its own right, it's not the best place for empathy, and that's what Rob needs after his break with Laura. Initially he faces the split with bravado, yelling at her that she doesn't even make his all-time Top 5 list of memorable split-ups (yes, he has one), but that fighting spirit is not fated to last.

As the pain of Laura's absence (and her possible connection with someone else) sinks in, Rob is forced, for perhaps the first time, to think about his life and confront his difficulty with romance and commitment. "What's wrong with me? Why am I doomed to be left?" he wonders plaintively and, in an attempt to find out, thinks back on that list of all-time memorable ruptures, amusingly reconsidering liaisons with Catherine Zeta-Jones, Lili Taylor and others.

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Director Frears, who is noticeably good with realistic relationships that have a touch of comedy in them ("The Snapper," "My Beautiful Laundrette"), knows his way around this scenario. Under his guidance, Cusack's painful but funny reexamination leads to a getting of wisdom that is no less welcome for coming years later than it should have.

Cusack, with his ability to project glowering desperation and a sense of aggrieved entitlement, is perfect for this role. As Laura, the woman he can't live with or without, Danish actress Hjejle (recently seen as a prostitute-turned-housekeeper in that country's "Mifune") displays both faultless English and a formidable sense of integrity that allows her to more than hold her own in fairly heady company.

For it's a tribute to how well "High Fidelity" has been written (and to the respect other performers have for Cusack and Frears) that the film employs quite a number of excellent actors in small roles. In addition to Taylor and Zeta-Jones, there are parts for Tim Robbins, Joan Cusack, Lisa Bonet, Sara Gilbert and Natasha Gregson Wagner.

The film's music (more than 50 songs are listed in the credits, with artists ranging from Aretha Franklin to Stereolab) is expertly chosen, and there's even a cameo by Bruce Springsteen, giving sage romantic advice. Of course Rob needs it, but whether he can take it is, obviously, quite another story.

* MPAA rating: R, for language and some sexuality. Times guidelines: contemporary profanity and some sexual scenes.