RIORI Presents Installment #193: Joe Dante’s “Looney Tunes: Back In Action” (2003)


The Film…


The Humans…

Brendan Fraser, Jenna Elfman, Timothy Dalton, Joan Cusack, Heather Locklear, Bill “Goldberg” Goldberg and Steve Martin.


The Tunes…

Joe Alaskey, Jeff Bennett, Billy West and Eric “Not Goldberg” Goldberg.


The Plot…

When Daffy Duck quits his job as second banana at Warner Brothers, security guard DJ gets tasked with keeping that ungrateful quack off the lot.

On the flip side, comedy maven Kate needs Daffy back in the ranks—you can’t have Bugs without Daffy after all—so she and star wascally wabbit Bugs Bunny are on the case.

But this is no simple snatch and grab/road trip. Oh no. The secrets this goony quartet discover along the way might alter the course of history!

And maybe coerce Daffy to come home and renegotiate his contract. Maybe.


The Rant…

Let me share with you my late Saturday mornings back when I was a pup. Betcha most of you out there in the blogosphere have a similar story.

Before Saturday morning cartoons were relegated to cable on the Disney Channel and Nick the major networks gave over their usual airings of game shows and talk shows to broadcasting cartoons from, say, six AM until noon to bring in the weekend for kids like me. We were glad and relieved to get away from schoolroom drudgery for 48 hours (unless that dope of a 5th grade science teacher gave us homework over the blessed weekend. I could’ve cared less about what mitochondria do for the cell. Ugh). giving over to a morning of silliness, action and whatever you could describe Pee-Wee’s Playhouse was. That and too many bowls of neon colored cereal designed to overload your carburetor, God willing.

Getting right to point (for once) my Saturday morning viewing habits concluded with Spider-Man And His Amazing Friends (Iceman and Firestar of the X-Men), The Bugs And Daffy Show and finally Soul Train, where I caught up on the newest rap artists. Then I had to go mow the lawn. That’s how it went for a lot of Gen Xer’s I’ll bet. Not just the lawn mowing, nor grooving to the likes of Run-DMC or Kurtis Blow (an aside: opposite Soul Train was American Bandstand, which I detested. What turned me off was the prattle of America’s oldest teenage dork Dick Clark, which cardboard had more charm), but the immortal Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck. The Looney Tunes! Classic and timely in the same package.

Those cartoons had something for everyone, kids and adults alike. Keep in mind that those classic ‘toons were shown after the previews in theaters back in the 1940’s and 50’s, aimed for mass appeal. Well before Pixar. Well before pixels even. For children of all ages. If you consider it, the Looney Tunes were the progenitors for the likes of modern parody and satiric cartoons like The Simpsons, Family Guy and South Park. Okay, granted the Looney’s were not as overtly topical or scatological as the aforementioned establishments, but they were damn good at poking fun at…well, everything, at least back in the early 40s. They could also skirt around being subversive when they wanted to (EG: what was with all the cross-dressing?). Some of the best shorts was when the toons directed their mockery at real life celebrities, skewering the pop culture of the day. Example, sister series Merrie Melodies provided “Slick Hare,” which both lampooned and celebrated all the real-life stars in the Warner Studios in the forties. Here’s a sample. Check it.

I’m figuring that was Lauren Bacall as Bogie’s date.

So why have the Looney Tunes endured, while equal acts back then like Woody Woodpecker and Popeye kinda fell into obscurity? Because, Doc, on the most part they could be reinterpreted by each generations’ audience. They were funny, they were topical, both factors carry over, as well as being their being irreverent. I believe that’s the key; the Tunes winking and nudging and trolling and just being zany enough to ignore the rules of physics, both scientific and why the hell don’t any of Wile E’s Acme deliveries never work yet he won’t delete his account profile? And where’s he getting the funding for all the crap? We don’t care. Just keep being funny, guys. Just keep being.

That zaniness paired with irreverence—the self-effacing, wink wink nudge nudge delivery—is why the Toons have survived for so long. Even back in the 90s, with the updated gags of Tiny Toon Adventureswhere Buster and Babs Bunny took cues from Uncle Bugs, there were even more sight gags of social relevance as well as pop culture roasting of the trends of the day (EG: I really dug the ep of TTA when it was all music videos highlighting the goofy brilliance of They Might Be Giants. Buster: “Who are these guys?”). Thus saying, the Tunes can adapt to the times, as well as be revisited in all their silly, non-PC glory from back in the day. Circle of life. As comedy goes, the tropes that got it right as far as staying power goes follows like Monty PythonSNL, MST3K and of course the Looney Tunes/Merrie Melodies franchise. And how’s this? Relevance, dependability and reinvention, which is all those series had in spades. Still do.

I get it that the Tunes aren’t that sharp to reinvention, despite they originated in the movie theaters, which mocked their output. However when it came time for a live action adaptation (a la Roger Rabbit), which was far overdue for the big screen, how would Bugs and crew adapt this time out? We’re in the 21st Century now, and a lot of the non-PC gags which made the shorts so great back in the day would be taboo now. We’re not talking cancel culture here, and I kinda doubt Yosemite Sam hamming it up as a demented Johnny Reb, the Kaiser’s egotistic WWI pilot or the hare trigger happy outlaw Yosemite Sam we know and love today would translate across the decades. A lot of the Tunes mana was parody, slapstick and occasional satire. All welcome today—I repeat, South Parkbut the Tunes modus operandi was not to offend any sensibilities. They were drawn to be funny, packed fair and square. These days we can plainly see a bit of cultural insensitivity here and there, but it’s there and gone in a flash and not the whole of the short, as opposed to Walt Disney’s “blackface” animation Song Of The South, released in the same period. All anyone got out of that mistake was the catchy “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah” song that, admittedly, won the Oscar for best original song. Precious few know that song due to the ultra-conservative take on it. However up the ladder almost anyone knows “The Merry-Go-Round Broke Down,” the Looney Tunes theme song. There, now you know the title.

As venerable as the Looney Tunes franchise is it’s still lucrative. Still appealing. Consider the Space Jam sequel. Heck, when ten-year-old me was wedged between Peter Parker and Don Cornelius I thought the Tunes were new-fangled, custom made for Saturday mornings. What a shock it was to find Bugs and Daffy were older than my parents. And yes, sometimes the gags haven’t aged well, or at least inspired by arcane studio system trivia from back in the very day. All things considered, the Tunes back on the silver screen was a long time coming. So did Bugs, Daffy and the whole crew have the moxie to pull it of like back in the good ol’ days?

Let’s find out, folks…


The Story…

You’ve heard about things in threes? Beware, beware. But what about things in fours? Or fives even?

DJ (Fraser) is a crummy, clumsy stuntman at Warner Brothers studios. After one too many botches, he’s relegated back to his original job: security guard. He’s not very good at that either. It’s really embarrassing since his dad Damien Drake (Dalton) is their superstar action spy leading man…who scored his klutzy son the guard job in the first place. The apple fell far from the tree regarding DJ.

Meanwhile…

Daffy Duck (Alaskey) has had it being second fiddle to Bugs Bunny (also Alaskey), always enduring Elmer’s shotgun blasts to his feathered face. Daffy’s fed up and won’t renew his contract with the Warners for another season unless he gets his props. WB’s exec of comedy Kate (Elfman) is now tasked to get the duck back in action because, hey, without Daffy Bugs has no cachet. So she and the rabbit jailbreak from the studio to catch up with their duck amok.

Meanwhile…

JD received an urgent message from his superstar dad to come back home…with stowaway Daffy in tow. Dad’s mansion is a tribute to Damien…with a lot of odd decorations. After Daffy accidentally trips a secret message, turns out Damien is a for real spy, and has crucial info regarding the Acme Corporation’s nefarious Chairman (Martin) and his latest plan to generate more nefarious revenue. The Acme Corp? Don’t they fund the Looney Tunes? Oh yeah, and Damien is in their clutches.

Meanwhile…

Looks like it’s up to DJ and Daffy to complete Damien’s mission, not to mention Kate and Bugs’ mission hot on their trail to secure their jobs.

Meanwhile…

What the hell’s a Blue Monkey…?


The Review…

Right off the bat, I must say that this flick wasn’t for everyone. It’s clear that I’m an ardent Looney Tunes fan, but I feel for most my ardor runs very close to culty territory. Most folks I’ve found regard Bugs and company as quaint. A portrait of the animated comedy of yesteryear. In their time the Tunes were cutting edge. Not nearly as polished as their Disney rivals, and all the better for it. Let’s put it this way: no matter how new fangled the latest smartphone gets, the old model that fit the bill (and your palm) was the best phone you ever had, despite its limitations. Mine was my old iPhone 5. It was perfect, and I’m sometimes tempted to assault eBay for a retro purchase. The Tunes aren’t considered flashy now, or even en vogue as far as cartoons go, but they were solid pieces of animated comedy. Always reliable for a laugh. If you disagree you have no sense of humor. You are, as it’s been said, a maroon.

The raw animation of the Tunes couldn’t hold a blowtorch to Mickey’s motley crew, all watercolors and chirpy dialogue. However, the best take on how the Tunes trumped Disney when it came to humor came from disgraced comic Louis CK. His was something along the line of “Bugs Bunny is f*cking funny! Mickey Mouse is like: ‘Oh! Too much water!’.” When I claim that Chuck Jones was a genius the gentry responded with polite indifference: “Didn’t he own that kiddie pizza place?” Most folks don’t know (let alone care) what an acme* is anyway.

So yeah, the Tunes haven’t been much of a going concern lately what with every big budget animated feature having tossed pen to cell into the Dumpster decades ago. Along with my busted iPhone 5, with the ghost of Steve Jobs cackling. Agony. Sure, as of the time of this installment the Space Jam sequel is on it’s way, featuring this generation’s best b-ball players alongside the Tunes. Brand new live action married to CGI animation that is often better than expected. However, there is something to be said about the organic charms of the Tunes old skool cell animation. For one, it was pretty damned good animation. Again, not as polished as Disney, but what the Tunes lacked in technical merit they made up for it in spades when it came to tongue in cheek fun. Tunes tries a good deal to recapture that lightning in a bottle, even with CGI enhanced whatsits. Director Dante got the manic feel right, that zaniness across the board, but the execution felt a bit forced. It scanned like he had a dire mission to bring the Tunes to a 21st Century audience, where everything was madcap, frenetic and ultimately too busy to sit back, inhale and laugh. Blink and you’ll miss it. Tunes was indeed witty, but there was this Doppler effect that when a gag launched, it took a few long seconds to catch up with it. It got kinda exhausting. I’m all for swift pacing, but the parallax shift in Tunes got hard to take let alone me following the story. That was my immediate carp with Action. I wished it would have slowed the f*ck down. ADHD makes for a bad mindset when it comes to watching (and dismantling) any movie, but all was not lost on a Ritalin smoothie. I know that I’m always harping on pacing either making or breaking a flick, and Tunes was hell bent on recreating the zaniness we know and love from the originals at mach 10. The gags and one-liners in Tunes were delivered at such a frenetic pace it left one’s brain swirling on an existential Tilt-A-Whirl. What I’m saying is I needed some breathing room. Ever take in a Michael Bay movie? Get tired of all the boomy things? Me too. It kinda ruins the narrative, even when it doesn’t really matter. Like with The Island.

Zing!

I reckon director Dante was just as much a fanboy as I, and earned his bones with Tunes covering the spread of the WB cartoon universe. Hell, these characters made me laugh as a child of the 80s, and were created in the 40s before my parents knew how to eat solid foods. There’s a lot to digest here (pun intended) canon wise, and like I implied Dante made sure we suffered an overdose. That’s either a delight or a caution depending where you’re perched on the fence. Dutifully, Dante’s output has been pretty hit-or-miss. All of the fantasy films he’s helmed over the years have been a bit fevered, attempt to reconstruct an homage (or mimicry) to Spielberg. However, unlike Steve’s flights of fancy films, which always had a thread of “seriousness” to them (read: Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, ET: The Extra-Terrestrial and even Hook, before God) Dante’s catalog lacks no such pretense. I’ve gathered he’s made films based on cutting his teeth with the B-flicks he loved as a kid. That shows; there’s a teenage guile behind his camera work, snickering all the while. His sh*t won’t win awards, and it doesn’t matter. Ain’t you having as much fun as I am? Your loss. Like with his Innerspace, The ‘Burbs and Matinee (a very telling culprit in his oeuvre), his muse is an amusement park, freewheeling against Spielberg joyously navel-gazing. That sort of aesthetic explains his directing Tunes. It invited migraines, but it worked. Pass the Advil.

To his credit however, Dante did a decent job honoring the legacy as well as acknowledging the fans, Red Bull enemas notwithstanding. What was great about this movie was that virtually ALL of the Looney Tunes got screen time, even the obscure ones like dopey Beaky Buzzard and outlaw Nasty Canasta. Tunes was a who’s who in WB toon-dom, perhaps an urgent plea to indifferent Millennials to get off TikTok for a blip toiling over their lame animations (mostly ripping off the Toons at the outset. It’s a judgement call, but I’m making it) and embrace the feels of old skool animation. Tunes did have a certain scent of catching up the under-informed how vital these characters were and still are. Perhaps not on a collegiate level, but it was very obvious Dante loved and respected the Looney Tunes and wanted to share all with an unassuming love letter. A frothing frenzy of a love letter, but in good spirit dang it.

I figured that Tunes was another nod to all the goodies Dante scooped up and digested as a teenager. My eye spied a fanboy a mile away, and not just towards Looney Tunes. Nope. Tunes was dappled by many nods to classic scenes from the WB vault. Dante was a fan. The riff on Psycho‘s infamous shower scene, maverick and influential filmmaker Roger Corman shows up, a black-and-white Kevin McCarthy shows up at Area 52 lugging an alien pod. And that Pixar dig. The guy did his homework. Not necessarily about out of time pop culture, just to know what to dapple the LT universe with. A tribute, you see. However Dante’s wink wink nudge nudge schtick got to be somewhat tiresome after a while. In other words from fellow LT fans: “We get it.” I guess sometimes there’s always too much of a good thing. Ah, me.

It’s easy to say that the voice cast performed admirably. Alaskey was the primary voice of the Tunes, but the others (particularly West, who has a résumé a mile long, from Ren & Stimpy to Futurama) did their yeoman’s work. I remember seeing Alaskey on several stand-up comedy shows as an impressionist. His bit about Jack Nicholson as Eddie Haskell coming on to Leave It To Beaver‘s June Cleaver was hilarious, as well as Edith Bunker from All In The Family reciting Juliet’s soliloquy from Shakespeare’s best known romantic tragedy was truly inspired, not to mention Ralph Cramden deconstructing the events surrounding Laura Palmer’s murder in Twin Peaks. The guy knew voices, and not just sounding like the characters. The man could enunciate. He had nuance. He wasn’t just sounding like Bugs Bunny, he was Bugs. And I was nothing short of impressed that Alaskey was not only Bugs, but Daffy, and Sylvester, and Tweety, and… Well, the voice crew were no Mel Blanc, but then who could be? Daffy was his usual apoplectic slapstick. Bugs was all cool and detached. Taz slobbered a lot, all in the best honor to Blanc’s polymorphic vocals. Who could ask for anything more? Alaskey was a student, as was West. I’ve seen quite a few YouTube interviews with the man as to how he developed his voice. It was akin to method acting, only with your throat (he voiced Elmer Fudd, ha ha ha). It must’ve been a bit tricky when the casting call came down for all those voices. Wiser heads prevailed. Good job, Mary.

It’s the flesh and blood actors I want to talk about now, and the casting was right inspired. Fraser has been underrated for his skill with physical comedy. Doubtful? Check out Encino Man, George Of The Jungle (hey, that Eiffel Tower rescue scene. Did you think? Nah) or Monkeybone. Sure, none of them were designed to earn awards (let alone recognition), but they do illustrate Fraser was at home with the Tunes. When you consider it, most of Fraser’s memorable roles have an element of physical comedy (think Airheads, The Mummy and even him being rather aloof in Crash). His toony body language worked well in context with Tunes. It helped that his DJ took nothing seriously, even when trying to, which resulted in a seamless performance when interacting with his animated co-stars. Best proof? Check out the fight scene between DJ and Nasty Canasta. Again, seamless. Fraser was the ideal guy as our beleaguered protagonist.

Speaking of goony, it appeared that old skool, “wild and crazy guy” Steve Martin reared his madcap head as Mr Chairman of Acme Corp. If you ever caught Martin’s old comedy shows back in the 70s, you understood he played to the crowd a lot, as if breaking some fourth wall. Only Martin could make that dumb arrow-through-the-head gag funny. The look of Mr Chairman was “my look is my act look.” The thick horn rims, the Prince Valiant haircut gone horribly awry, the twitchy gesticulations of a six year old desperately in need of a public restroom. It’s all there, and Martin played to the hilt, not giving a damn how annoyingly cringy he got. In sum, Mr Chairman was a dopey bad guy we all would like to smack in the face with a flounder. Too bad he’d probably enjoy it. We all love a villain we love to hate, even if it was the live action cartoon like Steve Martin. Thumbs up overall.

Nonentity Jenna Elfman starred here in Tunes also. Moving on.

Okay, okay. Minus the dig at Elfman and her Sprite commercial appeal, Tunes did a decent job bringing Bugs and the gang into the 21st Century. Considering the last time they were on the silver screen was with 1996’s Space Jam (not to mention that sequel again right around the corner at this time of writing), Dante did a solid job representing all the glorious goofiness of the Tunes in the theater, even without Air Jordan. Yes, there were hiccups (EG: the pacing required crystal meth to follow, the action-comedy came across as forced, Jenna Elfman was cast, etc), but if you’re a fan of the Tunes, this was the greatest hits album. Not a fan? A simple curiosity with a lot of dumb jokes. It’s a good lazy Saturday afternoon movie. Perfect for after the debut of the new LL Cool J single and later on when the backyard needed mowing.

That’s all folks!

(C’mon. You gotta gimme that. 🙂


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? A mild rent it. Looney Tunes are a unique taste. I love ’em, however their return to the silver screen lacked a lot of the charm the original shorts had. Still, the Loonies are like pizza: even when it’s bad it’s still better than no pizza.


The Quips…

  • *The highest point. The pinnacle. Yer welcome.
  • “I found Nemo!”
  • Elfman is not hot. Don’t believe whatever hype.
  • “You got rid of our best duck.”
  • Lotsa cool cameos here, wide and varied and prob’ LT fans themselves.
  • “Y’know, I’m getting really tired of throwing you out of the car.”
  • Dalton’s better here as a spy than he was as 007.
  • “Shh. I’m about to defy you.”
  • I loved the vintage horror aliens (as well as Robbie the Robot’s cameo) on the rampage.
  • ” – Run! –”
  • Wait a minnit. That’s an Indian elephant.
  • “I did not order the pendulum of doom!”
  • This sure ain’t no Roger Rabbit.

The Next Time…

Welcome to Paterson NJ, where we spend a week with Paterson the man. Bus driver by day, poet by night. Where to?


 

RIORI Vol. 2, Installment 36: Stephen Frears’ “High Fidelity” (2000)


High-Fidelity-poster-art


The Players…

John Cusack, Iben Hjejle, Jack Black and Todd Louiso, with Catherine Zeta-Jones, Lisa Bonet, Sara Gilbert, Joan Cusack and Tim Robbins.


The Story…

Once again, cranky audiophile Rob Gordon has been dumped by…oh, it doesn’t matter. They’re all the same, ever since middle school. After this latest failure of a relationship, Rob decides to do some soul-searching; to figure out what’s gone wrong in his life when it comes to the opposite sex. It may be a lack of maturity. Or his caustic attitude. Or most likely, he identifies better with the music in his unfeasible record collection than actual socializing. Whatever the reason may be, Rob’s going to be adrift and alone forever if he doesn’t take off the headphones.


The Rant:

Here we go again with another music-themed movie, and you just know your not-so-humble blogger is going to either rail on and on about corporate rock and/or rail on and on about his psychotic record collection.

Nope.

Not this time. Not gonna do it. We’ve got something else under the lens today: movies based on pre-existing media. In the case of High Fidelity, books.

With any movie adaptation of a pre-existing literary form—a Shakespearean play, a novel, a comic book, etc.—the director has to walk a very loose tightrope, but a tightrope nonetheless. I say loose because we have two sides of an audience to reach here—most of whom are fickle—and we best be flexible.

On one side, the audience that knows the source material, wants to see the director’s vision and interpretation of said source as close as possible, hopefully satisfying the need (sometimes obsession) to see if he got it “right.” People want to see the director’s vision not getting in the way of…well, the director’s vision. You don’t want to have a color-by-numbers, scene-by-scene exact duplication of the original material. That’s a cop-out, especially to those who already read the book and probably loved the book like chocolate, sex and sex-covered chocolate.

On the other side, you don’t want the director to deviate so far from the original idea so to mangle the script, use lame dialogue, and stick in some artistic “flair” that either Hollywood insisted on adding like a happy ending, general sweetening or Jennifer Aniston. That or placating the director’s muse excitedly sh*tting on his head. It’s a delicate balance, and the pissy audience that already read the book—Harry Potter fans, Game of Thrones disciples, Walking Dead adherents and/or Fifty Shades of Grey very desperate housewives—wants it both ways. When it doesn’t work out, it’s usually the audience’s fevered fanboy-ism that’s to blame. Not that they’d ever admit it.

That being said, there have been several notable book-to-film adaptations; some were stellar or at least satisfying. Sam Raimi’s Spider Man 2 springs immediately to mind. My opinion is best validated by rumor having it that when original Spidey artist John Romita, Sr. caught a sneak peak of the film, his comments were more-or-less, “I drew that…Drew that…That too…etc.” Sounds like the movie straddled the line well to me. Other highlights include MASH, the Godfather and the original Die Hard; yes, Die Hard was based on a book. I read the book after seeing the movie like, oh I dunno, a jillion times. I can safely say that here’s one instance where the movie version is superior. All the humor and vulnerability of Bruce Willis’ iconic, relatable everycop John McClane were absent in the book, as well as the hero being actually named “John McClane.”

As a control, Forrest Gump is not a good example. The touchy-feeliness of the movie version was sentimental Hollywood claptrap, which reliably raked in the dollars and awards; the novel was pessimistic with a capital P, Jenny. Another bad example, oddly enough, is Die Hard 2. Yes, yes, it was based on a book, too. A very good book, BTW. Hack director Renny Harlin chewed it up and spat it out and made a good, taut action/thriller novel into the ur-Michael Bay summer blockbuster. Lots of boom, bullets and bad dialogue. Yippee-ki-yay.

So why do some adaptations work and others limp? Like I said, walking the tightrope. There has to be enough cuts from the original roast to remain true to the spirit of the book, yet have enough directorial sensitivity to respect the lifted material while still adding a unique spin. This is usually done with visuals, dialogue and above all else acting. That and a kick-ass screenwriter like Ted “The Silence of the Lambs” Tally or Richard “The Quiet Man” Llewellyn don’t hurt none. All of it as a whole must be executed with extremely extreme prejudice. In simpler words: don’t dupe the audience. There’s a good chance they already read the book well before the movie hype hit the dailies. Ask any Shakespeare aficionado. Or Spider-Man fanboy.

Some books-turned-movies use the device of a narrator, and sometimes it works. Fight Club employed a narrator (to go so far as to credit Edward Norton simply as “Narrator”), so did Forrest Gump (and despite that movie’s squishiness, it worked too) and also Taxi Driver, A Christmas Story, The Big Lebowski, Apocalypse Now, GoodFellas and—before God—Dances with Wolves. These all worked. High Fidelity uses a narrator too. What separates this movie from the others is the deliberate shattering of “the fourth wall.”

For those who don’t know the reference, I’ll share. Look, it’s not as if the readers out there on the Interweb are thick, it’s just I want to be clear. I gather that most of us are of decent intelligence; of a curious nature that draws the lot of y’all to sh*t-digging social experiments like this one. I can get obtuse in my rumination at RIORI, so I’m making a point out of this one. It’s vital to the movie as a whole.

The “breaking of the fourth wall” is a theatrical reference in which a player steps out of character to directly address the audience. Bill Shakespeare (him again) did this often, like in his drama Othello where the baddie kept telling the audience about his nefarious plans, mwa-ha-ha. The best example used I can recall in modern cinema is in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Our protag makes asides to the audience enhancing the action to what’s happening (or will happen) onscreen. For High Fidelity, not unlike Day Off, it augments the comic aspects of the movie. Unlike Fidelity, all the wink-wink/nudge-nudge bets are off.

All right, lecture’s over. Hand in your blue books.

*cheers, applause, sighs of relief, lines to the bathroom*

Hmm. It seems like I’ve already chewed apart our latest installment before the synopsis is out there. Glad you caught me…


Laura (Hjejle) left. She finally had her fill of Rob (Cusack), his musical obsessions and his generally mopey attitude. She’s just another failed relationship in Rob’s seemingly endless line of failed relationships. Now he’s alone, bitter and the only companionship he can find is his unwieldy record collection.

What went wrong?

Rob now plays out days at his semi-failing record shop, Championship Vinyl, dealing with the snobby opinions of his “musical moron twins,” blithering Barry (Black) and milquetoast Dick (Louiso). Nights are spent organizing and reorganizing his LPs, ruminating over the notion that maybe he’s doomed to live alone forever.

Again, what went wrong?

In a rare moment of clarity, Rob does some soul-searching. He recalls his “top five, all-time breakups,” and how they happened. His sifts through his address book and decides to track down his exes to see if there was a pattern forming; what led to his undoing and lowly state. Sure, it might be painful to go down memory lane, facing some ugly truths about his relations with the opposite sex. But you know what they say: pain means you’re growing.

Rob figures it’s time to man up, stare down adulthood, get some maturity and, well, face the music…


I read High Fidelity well after I saw the movie. A lot of people—the aforementioned fanboy audiences— always claim that the book is always better than the movie. Fidelity is an exception to that belief. I’m not saying that either one was superior to the other. I’m saying with Fidelity as a whole, it didn’t really matter.

The movie is very faithful to the book. Very faithful. Like I said, I read the book after I saw the movie, and it made no difference. That’s how faithful Frears’ adaptation was. There were only three differences between the book and the movie:

  1. The setting. Nick Hornby’s book took place in London. The movie is set in Chicago. Cusack, who co-wrote the screenplay, is a native Chicagoan, as well as a handful of the other actors (Robbins et al). They were all once part of a troupe in the Windy City, and it was at Cusack’s behest that these folks could add something to the movie, enhance the set as tableau. Like the book, London was much a character as Chicago is here. Director Frears—who is English—was originally rather diffident about shooting an English story in an American city until he read the script and met the cast. In the end, where High Fidelity takes place was irrelevant. Some stories, like Hornby’s delightful novel, are universal. Life, love and leaving. That’s what Fidelity is all about.
  2. One scene from the book was deleted, and one was added. In the book, the chapter where Rob went record hunting at a spurned wife’s exes fire sale of his record collection was left out. The subplot about Rob producing a pair of burgeoning amateur musicians was added. Both were metaphor for Rob’s life arrest and eventual getting on with life. Both worked well, and;
  3. In the book, he was Rob Fleming. In the movie, he’s Rob Gordon. Not sure why this was done.

At heart, Fidelity is not a music movie. Right. It does have the soundtrack of my dreams, even Katrina & the Waves and “Most of the Time” is one of my fave, latter-day Dylan songs. But it’s not a music movie. It’s a story about personal responsibility and belated growing up.

It’s a lot of other things, too. Fidelity is a love story to and within Chicago, but the opposite of Ferris Beuller. Frears turned out to be wrong, all right. The setwork is great, and the backdrop of the city makes for a lovely sofa. The setting doesn’t really matter, but it helps the movie took place in a city as diverse as Chicago.

Almost as diverse as Rob’s infeasible record collection. Both are as much characters in the movie as the actors. Rob’s music collection is so intertwined with his personality—and his troubles—it’s like he can’t divorce himself from self-absorption steeped in adolescent fantasies and motives. His whole “art of the mixtape” schtick comes across as both solace and salvation, a la a teen brooding in his room after being not invited to the jocks’ beer bust. In the end, it’s all just juvenile and for naught, especially for a mid-30s bachelor and record geek.

Another thing: most importantly Fidelity is a character study, and without a primo cast like this one, there’d be just another Gen X nostalgia cash cow being milked here. Usually the director guides the actors. According to Frears, Fidelity was the other way around. And the whole thing rests on Cusack’s shoulders. If a lesser actor was employed the whole thing might’ve torn apart at the seams.

Rob is a walking headache. Leave it to Cusack to deliver his role with a slumped-shoulders, Holden Caulfield affect. No matter how old he or his story gets, Rob’s terminally in the 7th grade. It drums up sympathy for a character who really is a drudge, cranky and generally not a guy you’d want to share a beer with. His character does a lot of acting with a hangdog and a blank, baleful, hundred-mile stare. It’s paramount to breaking the fourth wall.

Oh yeah, that. The whole narrator thing? Key.

The DVD release of Fidelity has clips and commentary from Cusack and director Frears. Frears was a fan of the book and always wanted to make it into a movie, but was afraid that all of “the good stuff” would have to be left out. It was Cusack’s idea to do the whole narration thing. That way, all the exposition that was so vital to the book was left in, delivered in this very clever, non-intrusive way to convey Rob’s angst. It’s very subtle, thanks to Cusack’s alternating manic and meandering delivery. His monologues are like the confessionals of a middle schooler, which Rob ostensibly still is. It works well with the theme of life arrest. Rob’s just a “victim of circumstance,” with circumstances he’s created. He’s boxes himself in with his own rationalizing, and gets it intimate with the audience.

Fresh-faced Hjejle is great as Laura. She’s very disarming, kinda like a Gen X Isla. Laura is oddly strong, yet vulnerable. You get the feeling that she doesn’t want to leave Rob, she just has to so to maintain her sanity. It’s tough to be in a long term relationship with someone who just doesn’t get commitment, that it’s not just about you anymore. Rob is all about “you,” meaning him. Laura, whether Rob knows it or not, keeps him grounded. She’s never shown to be the bad guy. She bails, and it’s not for wondering why.

Black and Louiso are the Laurel and Hardy in Fidelity. Dick and Barry are yin and yang. Black is delightfully toxic. His acerbic wit and classic music snob blathering is both hilarious and cringe-worthy. I think we all know someone like Barry. They are all alone in a crowded record store. If only more actors could be as charmingly hammy as Black. And he actually has a good singing voice. It’s a bit schlocky, but entertaining, not unlike Tenacious D. Isn’t that what matters?

Louiso’s Dick is so self-effacing and passive it’s like he’s hiding inside his clothes. Dick is the anti-Barry. He’s still a music snob, but he assumes the timid, quiet stance. He likes letting lesser-knowing music buffs in on obscure bands as some secret, trace element stuff. It’s along this line that gets Dick a date. To wit, Louiso and Gilbert have an honest chemistry, and their budding relationship reflects Rob’s failed ones in understated, sweet contrast.

There’s a lot of nice touches about relationships in Fidelity. It’s a gentle movie, kinda tender, despite the prickly subject matter. It’s also a guy movie, with Cusack being the spot-on, typical thirty-something man-child, awash in insecurity, facing middle age and exuding weltschmerz from every pore. Us guys get that way. Rob’s love/hate relationship with his music reflecting his love/hate relationship with his past relationships; it’s never blunt, and paired with the smart narration, the message comes across with great humor and flintiness with being preachy. It’s the whole “adding the egg” metaphor here (see the All Is Lost installment). I love the dry humor. It does a great job escalating the tension within the first two acts as it eventually tempers the third descending into sweetness without being saccharine.

To wrap it up, there’s one word to describe Fidelity: satisfying. The story is solid, the acting great, the pacing perfect and it has an intelligent, thoughtful streak running throughout. High Fidelity is probably in my top-five, desert island movies.

Now where could I hook up the DVD and the stereo on a desert island? Well, thank God for Wi-Fi.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. Go read the book, too. Check out either one first. And take off those damned headphones.


Stray Observations…

  • “She liked me. She liked me. She liked me. At least I think she did…” No one really ever graduates middle school.
  • Every scene in the store, club or apartment features at least one album I own. I don’t know whether that’s comforting or really, really sad.
  • “A Cosby sweatah!”
  • That Slits album has been bouncing all over the sets. Who wants to wager director Frears is a fan?
  • “How can someone who has no interest in music own a record store?” The very sage Jack Black. Dumbass.
  • Keen use of the Beta Band there. Yeah, I have those albums too.
  • “Do you have soul?” “That all depends…”
  • Jones says “F*ck!” better than I’ve ever heard it anywhere.
  • Rob all alone in the record store. His castle, his prison.
  • “My guts have sh*t for brains!” Hornby.
  • I do miss mixtapes. I’ve made my fair share of mix discs, but it’s just not the same.
  • “I’d never thought I’d say this, but can I go to work now?”

Next Installment…

“Who, as they sung, would take the prison’d soul and lap it in Elysium?” That’s John Milton. Who’d’ve thunk he was into Matt Damon movies?