Hidden Gems: High Fidelity
By Kyle Lee
January 23, 2019
High Fidelity is one of my very favorite movies, but it didn’t start out that way. As a 17 year old leaving the theater, I loved Jack Black’s over the top blowhard sidekick, Barry, but honestly John Cusack’s lead character, and his journey through revisiting the loves of his life and how the relationships failed, just kind of left me wanting more. I thought the movie was good, but not great. Self-reflection and development didn’t mean a whole lot to a 17 year old, who woulda thunk it, right? As I revisited the movie over the years, though, as all great art does, it grew inside my mind and heart. I cared more, I understood more, I connected more. By the time I was in my late 20’s, with some life under my belt, it became a very personal favorite movie of mine.
We are plopped right into the action as Rob (Cusack) is in the middle of a breakup with his girlfriend Laura (Danish actress Iben Hjejle being perfectly American). To try and get under Laura’s skin, Rob shouts at her that she’s not even one of the top 5 real loves of his life, she didn’t mean that much to him. She couldn’t really hurt him because she wasn’t one of these special top 5 that had his heart. They were the ones that really hurt, not her. We soon learn that Rob is just lashing out in anger, but we maybe learn it faster than Rob does as he counts down the top 5, because things keep coming back to Laura.
Rob recounts these stories directly to us in a tricky little bit of filmmaking where he breaks the fourth wall and talks to us directly the way Rob does in the book, the way that filmmakers rarely do in the movies, and even more rarely do well. This is about as good as it’s ever been done. We go inside Rob’s head, inside his thoughts and emotions and self-doubt and narcissism. We even see his fantasy of revisiting the top 5 girls, talking to them in person, and it feeling like a Bruce Springsteen song, complete with a Springsteen cameo talking to Rob as Rob talks to us. And when Rob eventually has his emotional breakdown and begins truly learning his role in his own life, his part in all the failed relationships, he has those moments *to* us, directly to camera.
Written by the team of John Cusack (who also produced in addition to starring), Steve Pink, Scott Rosenberg, and D.V. DeVincentis, the script is tremendous. Usually four listed writers on a movie is a bad sign, that you’re going to get something scattershot and without a clear vision because it’s gone through too many writers hands and isn’t going to congeal into a true whole. Not here. Tasked with adapting Nick Hornby’s brilliant 1995 book of the same name, moving the action from Hornby’s London to Cusack’s home town of Chicago, the writers created a story with meaning, heart, humor, and emotion. Creating people sharply drawn in their desires and their faults. And behind the director’s chair is the steady hand of Stephen Frears, twice Oscar nominated as Best Director (for the Helen Mirren starring The Queen as well as 1990’s The Grifters, a brilliant little neo-noir also starring Cusack), he wasn’t even nominated for his most iconic movie, the 1988 adaptation of Dangerous Liaisons. Here I have to assume that some of that elusive cohesion of the story has to have come from Frears. This movies tone is pitched at absolutely the perfect note. Not just any filmmaker could’ve gotten it so right and seemed so effortless.
We follow Rob not just through his past relationships (the most memorable with Catherine Zeta-Jones’s Charlie), but also through Laura’s fling with a neighbor (Tim Robbins), Laura’s friend Liz (Joan Cusack) and her job as the go between for Rob and Laura during the breakup, and Rob’s day to day life as the owner of a record store alongside his employees Dick (Todd Louiso) and Barry (Jack Black). We also meet a sexy local singer/songwriter the guys all have a crush on, played perfectly by Lisa Bonet. The guys obsessively make top 5 lists, such as Top 5 opening tracks on an album, Top 5 songs about death, and sometimes super specific but abstract lists like Top 5 songs to play on a Monday morning. These scenes are what Jack Black owes his career to, as he is electric and steals every scene he’s in. It was obvious what a talent he was immediately upon seeing this movie.
I loved this aspect of the movie most upon initial viewing, because I was a list obsessed teenager myself. These guys were in their 30’s, but I still saw myself (which shows you how much room they have to grow). Things changed for me later just as they do for Rob. I experienced more, I developed and grew as a person just as Rob grows over the course of the movie. In the beginning Rob is so obsessed with music, songs, albums, and making lists that he ignores the important things in his life, like his relationships and how he is the one sabotaging himself more than he is a victim of the behavior of others. He even says that he, Dick, and Barry have talked about how the most important thing about a girl is what she likes, not what she is like. But eventually he even starts trying to figure some things out, like what he wants to do with the rest of his life, and who he wants to be as a person. The kind of things that we all need to figure out.
For as good as the writing is, and the supporting cast is, this is the only movie that has really, truly captured what John Cusack can do as an actor. He’s been the jaded cool guy, the rom-com lead, the detective or cop, the comedic leading man, and much more, but in High Fidelity he got the best role of his career and he embodied it more than ever with the vulnerability, intelligence, and humor that has always been there but never coalesced into such a tremendous performance. Rob Gordon has become a milestone character for me as a moviegoer. Maybe the character I most resemble and relate to.
Rob is the best rom-com lead character (because at its core this is really a rom-com for guys), he takes us more intimately into his brain and his being than almost any other character has. We *know* Rob by the end of the movie. And if you can go on the journey with him and not be turned off by some of his early (more self-obsessed or arrogant) behavior, we love Rob by the end. Watching him grow out of his state of arrested adolescence is cathartic, hilarious, and heartwarming. It’s the best work from one of our most underappreciated actors, and even if many people know of the movie, more people should see it. And expect it to grow in your mind the way it did mine. It’s a real Hidden Gem.