Record store manager and list-compiler-extrordinaire Rob Gordon's (John Cusack) girlfriend has left him, sending him on a mission to find out what went wrong, and what were his all time, top five, most painful breakups ever.
It sounded like a duff idea on paper. Uprooting Nick Hornby's decidedly Brit 'n' blokey world-view to the throb of Chicago was riddled with the potential for disaster in the transatlantic crossing, with all the subtleties and textures blanded out. However, against the odds, director Frears and co. have fashioned a funny, involving smart meditation on the prattle of the sexes by retaining most of the incident and attitude of the novel and adding a broader, more accessible feel.
Attempting to capture the freewheeling approach of the book (the infamous 'top five...' lists and all), Frears' heavy dependence on direct-to-camera addresses and voiceover jars initially - there are few actual meaty scenes to get your teeth into - denying emotional involvement. But, with Cusack's eminent likeability acting as a conduit, you eventually slide into the film's rhythms and get drawn into Rob's world. Little actually happens - Rob has a fling with rootsy singer Marie DeSalle, seeks emotional rescue from The Boss himself, Bruce Springsteen - but the patchwork plotting builds an insightful collage of emotional dreads, doubts and joys that plays to the head rather than the heart.
If this is decidedly Cusack's show, starting at hangdog desperation then expertly descending towards frenzy, the gallery of supporting characters still have enough room to make their mark - step forward a flamboyant Catherine Zeta-Jones and a needy Lili Taylor as Gordon's exes. Moreover, if slightly more 'pantomime' than the rest of the movie, Tim Robbins' cameo role as a Zen-obsessed love rival to Cusack ranks as a real crowdpleaser. Louiso is a funny, passive presence as the shy Dick, but it is Jack Black's sarcastic, aggressive Barry who practically steals the movie, the perfect antidote to John Cusack's navel gazing.
Musically, it finds the US equivalents of Hornby's UK lexicon, and the threeway dissing sparkles.