The Music Man
THE SETUP: Rob Gordon (John Cusack) owns Championship Vinyl, a record shop in Chicago’s version of New York’s East Village. Rob is moping through the breakup with his live-in girlfriend, Laura (Danish actress Iben Hjele), who’s left him for Ray, a ponytailed self-help guru (the hilariously bewigged Tim Robbins). Speaking directly to the camera, Rob deals with his distress by tallying compulsive Top Five lists of his favorite musical moments, as well as the far more telling roster of his Top Five breakups.
KAREN: I’m trying to decide what kind of date movie this is. On the one hand, it’s a man-maligning portrait of yet another narcissistic Peter Pan, the kind of guy who wants a Wendy to darn his socks while he maintains the option to fly out the window with any Tinkerbell-type who comes along. Yet as Rob runs around a sweetly-rendered version of today’s Bohemian Chicago, endlessly moaning about what a pathetic loser he is, he does it with so much dopey, self-deprecating charm you’re often rooting for him.
RAY: I have a confession to make: all the particulars spoke to me. I’ve been there and I remember behaving that way. Maybe I was a bit less of a Peter Pan I certainly was not quite as narcissistic.
KAREN: So tell me: What kind of conversation would you have with your date after seeing a movie about a guy your age who is more committed to his priceless collection of vinyl than his live-in girlfriend? Who still rather effortlessly manages to get lots of rebound sex with some extremely attractive women?
RAY: Maybe I’d opt for that rarely-seen tactical maneuver, honesty: the film’s details about male longing, ego and jealousy ring true. On the other hand, his intense need to know what his ex is up to (and with whom), struck me as unfamiliar, almost frightening. I never want to know all the horrible details after a breakup. Rob even wants to know if the sex is better with Ray. Me? I just want to know if I need to change my phone number so I don’t get the “Ohhh, it’s me, I want to make myself feel better” phone calls.
KAREN: Women have their secret (and compulsive) need-to-knows, too, my friend. It’s a funny thing about those obsessions, though: Does he ruminate on missing her nagging him to take out the garbage? Hardly. I’m always fascinated by the fantasy-memories of an ex after a breakup rather than the reality-memories.
RAY: And the fantasy-memories often have to do with sex, don’t they? I’ve often caught myself idealizing a past lover, even to the point of missing cigarette breath and dirty hair as much as the sniff of sex.
KAREN: I knew you liked them filthy. But it makes sense in a fantasy the sex can be better, the condoms can be size large, the vibrator batteries always work and the beloved in your bed doesn’t immediately fall asleep while the last moan is still echoing in your ears.
RAY: You’re starting to sound like a war correspondent, Karen. But a lot of the battle in this tale of love lost and regained is an internal one. Like most men, Rob’s self-destructive behavior stems from a mix of jealousy and longing. Even as he moons romantically for the woman he loves, he seems mostly just to be angling for what we ought to call a “closure fuck” with her. And worrying about whether there’s another man near her, or, God forbid, inside her.
KAREN: Yeah, Rob’s not learning much from this breakup he doesn’t exactly address his emotional shortcomings; he just whines about them.
RAY: No, not all the time. To some extent, he’s grappling with maturity and sexual responsibility here in a way that makes him seem capable of change. He knows he must change or become that unenviable mid-forties guy in the club or bar looking for twenty-two-year-olds to score with. Weakness is attractive for only so long and that’s only when it’s vulnerability, not a character flaw. When Rob finally accepts rejection, it’s a telling moment.
KAREN: And about time. Pushing thirty-five, Rob still lives like a college student. His apartment is decorated in mid-grunge, his thousand of albums lovingly slip-covered in plastic to protect them from the elements. If he paid one-tenth as much attention to his emotional life as his musical life, he’d actually have a life.
RAY: Don’t women love a man who needs domesticating?
KAREN: But playing Wendy to Peter Pan is about as dull as a scratched version of “Baby I Love Your Way.” Do you think a female version of this High Fidelity concept would work? I doubt it. This is a totally testosterone-fueled flick. I’m not saying this as a complaint, mind you, because I thought a lot of the insights into the male psyche of sexual longing were fascinating. When they weren’t nauseating.
RAY: So, you didn’t relate when the songbird played by Lisa Bonet wakes up after a one-night stand with Rob and says that sex is “a human right,” that she won’t ever let her own ex “get between me and a fuck”?
KAREN: She sounds like a guy. Or a guy fantasy of a cool mixed-race songstress who’s happy to get a little nookie and not bother with those awkward breakfast conversations the next morning.
RAY: Give Rob credit, though, for his unabashed lust: he wears his hard-on on his sleeve.
KAREN: Although he gets awful droopy when he decides to look up his Top Five Breakups. But does he earn his sexual fun? Does he give anything back to the women he beds to service his ego? Does he actually have anything to give? He pokes fun at one zesty ex, played by Catherine Zeta-Jones yet she’s got a contented vitality along with her own sexy self-absorption. But seen through Rob’s eyes, her shallowness is not okay, even if his own is.
RAY: You’re taking this way too seriously. He’s just being rebound-boy.
KAREN: He can’t bear being an adult, you mean. He can’t bear having a Life where he’s got to be responsible for his dick.
RAY: It’s a heavy weight to bear.
KAREN: I’m sure you understand that better than I ever will.
RAY: Just take matters in hand, I always say. But I think the movie is at least frank, if not brave, in examining the baggage of a particularly confused sort of male jealousy and emotional masochism that few of us dare admit to. If there was a journal, Rob would read it; if there was a password, he would download the email.
KAREN: Hjele, playing the girlfriend who got away and then came back, was marvelous in terms of being wry and realistic but she wasn’t nearly as juicy. Because we define her only in terms of her leaving, she’s nowhere as indelibly real as Rob.
RAY: At least she gets the great scene that shows her hunger for real connection after her father’s death. She can’t find the great romantic flame she longs for, so she settles for the safety and comfort in Rob’s arms.
KAREN: Settle she does. You’re talking about when they pull the car over in the rainstorm
RAY: And she says, about the loss of her father, “I want to feel anything but this,” pulls down her panties and they go at it.
KAREN: It’s the common reaction after a death of a loved one the desperate need to connect, especially sexually. To feel alive and pulsing. But here, again, Rob gets lucky without having done anything emotionally satisfying to deserve it. He’s getting it again strictly because he’s there. Good thing there was no gear shift to get in the way.
RAY: It’s the kind of fantasy that men wouldn’t admit to after a breakup.
KAREN: You mean, you wouldn’t admit to.
RAY: I feel like you’re about to remind me of last time I got dumped and I’m gonna get teary-eyed.
KAREN: I hear your melody, even if I don’t feel your pain.