A Look Back: High Fidelity

Some novelists, as inspiring as they are, apparently have but one story only to tell – although by the time they are middle-aged and well-entrenched in their careers, they’ve become pretty good at giving their audience what they expect. When British novelist, Nick Hornby, first started writing, I assumed his niche was going to be young male narrators who need a jumpstart to become adults, but he moved on and even penned the book “Brooklyn,” which was made into a movie last year, about a young immigrant who becomes significantly less homesick after she meets a cute guy. His two early books, however, feature a similar character – in “About a Boy,” a twentysomething pretends to have a young son so he can date attractive single moms, and in “High Fidelity,” starring John Cusack in the movie version, a twentysomething tries to figure out how to sustain a romantic relationship.

It’s been asked – “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?” but it’s Hornby who, in the guise of “High Fidelity’s” protagonist, Rob Gordon, poses the question, “What came first, the music or the misery?…Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to pop music?” Like the first, I think that’s ultimately unanswerable, but it’s worth chewing over. At the beginning of the movie (the setting is changed from England to the US), John is certainly miserable both because he’s broken up with his girlfriend (Iben Hjejle) and because he works at a not-too-popular record store, which is not exactly a fast track career. In addition, his co-workers (a term here used loosely) are Jack Black and Todd Louiso, who aren’t the most scintillating company – especially when the former insists on ejecting a “sad bastard” song by Belle and Sebastian and substituting “Walking on Sunshine” shortly after John’s breakup. (The duo were originally hired to work part-time but started coming in more, and John doesn’t have the heart to correct the situation.) The upside is that they share John’s passion for incorporating various events in his life into Top X Lists. In fact, he treats the viewers to a review of his Top Five Worst Breakups, including one from when he was twelve that only lasted a few weeks. Even back then, the opposite sex was tough to figure out.

John also gets back in touch with an ex-girlfriend who invites him to a dinner party with her friends, all of whom are better at being grownups than he is. He additionally has the chance to live one of his fantasies – that he’ll date a singer/songwriter (Lisa Bonet) hoping maybe she’ll include a private joke of theirs in the liner notes of her next album. Meanwhile Iben dates Tim Robbins, who is kind of a twat; while Todd also gets a girl, and Jack starts his own band. Eventually, there is the sort of third act tragedy that happens in these movies solely to give the protagonist a mental kick and bring the destined couple back together. As a sign of his newfound maturity, John prepares a mix tape filled with – gasp – stuff that Iben will probably like, as opposed to just him. The movie does an excellent job of bringing the book to the big screen – even with the change in setting, and as Roger Ebert noted in his review, all the characters are recognizable – and mostly sympathetic even with their quirks.

A Look Back: Orange County

Author Flannery O’Connor once said that anyone who has survived their childhood has more than enough material to become a writer. That’s certainly true of Shaun Brumder (Colin Hanks), a surfer turned wannabe novelist, the main character of “Orange County,” directed by Jake Kasdan (son of Lawrence and that’s just getting started on the nepotism). Colin (son of Tom) plays a California teen, whose life acquires direction after his pal is killed in a surfing accident (this is played for laughs: everyone shows up at the funeral in black bathing suits) and he discovers a copy of a novel that inspires him to become a writer himself. Now all he does (as we’re told via voiceover) is write, despite lack of encouragement from his ditzy mother (Catherine O’Hara), oddball English teacher (Mike White, who also wrote the movie), stoner older brother (Jack Black) and pals. He does, however, find a source of support in his girlfriend Ashley (Schuyler Fisk, daughter of Sissy Spacek), who offers him the ultimate compliment, “This is so good – it could be a movie!”

Colin decides to apply to Stanford University because that is where the author of the life-changing book teaches. Colin also sends a copy of a story he wrote to the author himself, a smart move – had his guidance counselor not mixed up his transcript and as a result, wound up getting him rejected. After a disastrous meeting with a college official, he, Schuyler and Jack go on a road trip to Stanford, which surprisingly turns into one catastrophe  after another. Meanwhile back at home, his separated parents make some tentative stabs at being courteous to each other, in the name of helping the son get into college, though they, too, are only partly successful.

Ultimately, Colin must decide whether or not to attend Stanford or stay in Orange County. Using the logic that all writers really require is an abundance of material, he chooses the latter. This being a movie, everyone is overjoyed – no one rains on the parade by pointing out that there are plenty of weirdoes attending college, too. (Perhaps at the real Stanford there are, but the film version is filled with partying, drunk teens line dancing to the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Butterfly.”) “Orange County” is uneven humor-wise, but it has an engaging cast and has its heart in the right place, even if, like the characters, it isn’t perfect.

A Look Back: The School of Rock

We’ve all known someone like “The School of Rock’s” main character, Dewey Finn (Jack Black), a paunchy, aging guy still gracelessly clinging to dreams of rock stardom and stickin’ it to The Man. At the start of the movie, Jack’s ego is so inflated, his bandmates kick him out, and he’s faced with the dilemma of coming up with a day job to pay the rent for the apartment he shares with his nebbishy roommate (Mike White) and Mike’s domineering girlfriend (Sarah Silverman), who gets the kind of thankless role where the character really does have a point about responsibility, but none of the cooler characters want to listen.

Anyway, Jack soon stumbles upon a new “gig,”: being a substitute teacher (impersonating Mike) at a private elementary school. Needless to say, he plans to do the minimum and believes that his students will happily fall in line with his suggestion to slack off. Alas, his students are a bunch of prim throwbacks to the ones in “Dead Poets’ Society,” “The Emperor’s Club,” etc. who respond to the plan to have extended recess with horror. However, they turn out to possess musical talent, which Jack promptly exploits by announcing that they are going to work on “Project Rock Band,” which will give them oodles of extra credit and impress the heck out of future college admissions officers. This kicks off a series of adventures, life lessons and high jinks, which does end in a rather unexpected fashion – but with everyone still over the moon at their chance to compete in a Battle of the Bands, in which Jack’s former bandmates are also participating. (This is one movie that really practices the message: “it’s not whether you win or you lose.”)

In movies like this, the teacher may or may not get some sort of love interest, and here, the closest thing to one is the authoritarian principal (Joan Cusack), who seems strait-laced but winds up singing to Stevie Nicks after Jack takes her out for a drink, after which they reach a truce of sorts. It’s the kids’ parents turn out to be the biggest obstacle, but in the end, they all show up to cheer on their offspring.  Overall, “The School of Rock,” avoids the mean-spiritedness in many comedies, and the closest it gets to sexual innuendo is when Jack announces in front of their dumbfounded parents that he’s touched their kids. In the G-rated sense of character building that is.