“Brilliant. A very funny and concise explanation of why we men are as we are. If you are male, you should read it and then make your partner read it, so they will no longer hate you but pity you instead.”
Those were Harry Enfield’s thoughts on the 1995 Nick Hornby novel, High Fidelity, the film version of which has now reached 20 years of age. The screen adaptation saw a team of writers, including the lead actor, John Cusack, move the story from London to Chicago, change the character’s name from Rob Fleming to Rob Gordon, and alter him from a Peter Gabriel lookalike to, well, John Cusack. The other small change was to alter, very slightly, the line-up of women that represented Rob’s top-five biggest heartbreaks; largely, it would appear, for the purposes of running time.
Other than that the film – directed by the very-much-British Stephen Frears, best known at this point for Dangerous Liaisons, and having worked previously with Cusack on 1990’s The Grifters – retains everything that made the book work so well (unlike attempts to Americanise Hornby’s earlier work Fever Pitch).
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As with the novel, Rob is something of serial monogamist, and finds himself comparing every relationship unfavourably to his college love Charlie Nicholson (Catherine Zeta Jones). After his latest relationship – with Laura (Iben Hjejle) – fails, he describes to us, through fourth wall breaking, the top-five biggest loves of his life and, by association, most painful break-ups. Taking most of the film to overcome his petulance enough to admit Laura belongs on the list, he spends the interim visiting the other women, in order to find out, in each case, what went wrong.
Top-fives are something of a thing for Rob, and he spends much of his days at his music store – Championship Vinyl – obsessively ranking aspects of artists and albums with his staff, Dick and Barry (Todd Louiso and Jack Black – the latter in what turned out to be a break-out role, with his insulting of a middle-aged customer front and centre in the film’s publicity materials). Added to his messy love life is local club singer, Marie DeSalle (Lisa Bonet – mother of Zoe Kravitz, who appeared in the recent television adaptation), with whom Rob has a short-lived fling.
So many of the themes of High Fidelity mirror the experiences of many of us in life: Rob puts a past girlfriend on a pedestal that no present day equivalent can match – only to find, when he catches up with her, that the incredible wisdom he bestowed upon her in memory is not matched by the relatively dull, self-absorbed person in front of him in the present day. It could be argued that it isn’t Charlie he’s missing – it is his youth (or at least the first flush of it – Cusack was around 34 at the time of the film’s release): his best memories of his time with Laura are from when he was a DJ and her legal career had yet to require her to take life too seriously.
The film ends with Laura arranging a DJ event for him to perform (where he learns for the first time, along with many in the cinema audience, that Jack Black can really sing). Reconnecting with Charlie is the final factor in Rob learning that life was never quite as perfect as he remembers, nor does he need ‘perfect’. The scene where he explains this to Laura is a great piece of writing, reflecting something that love stories in film rarely capture – the day-to-day reality after the ‘I do’ or the rush to the airport that ends so many of those films.
Other quirks of the male psyche are explored. The first is the self-absorption and double standards of many of us. Rob obsesses over Laura and a former neighbour called Ian (“What fucking Ian guy!!” – a small role for Tim Robbins), stopping only to sleep with Marie DeSalle, then, when leaving Marie’s apartment, straight back to his theme of how could Laura be sleeping with someone else? Earlier in the film he catches up with Penny Hardwick (Joelle Carter), his high school love (and the second of the five women – the first being his first kiss at around 13). He had split with Penny due to her being – in his terminology at the time – ‘tight’: i.e. she wasn’t ready to have sex with him. When he meets with her, she breaks down at the memory of how he’d dumped her when she’d really loved him, then ended up pressured into sex with someone else, leading to painful memories in the present.
After she leaves, crying, Rob is oblivious to her pain, and, actually, delighted, as he learns she didn’t refuse him only to give herself to someone else in the way he had thought. Balancing this selfishness, while still providing a likeable character, is the most skilful aspect of the film’s writing. This may be due to the fact that Rob, himself, as well as other characters do call him out on his flaws. His sister Liz (played by real life sister of John, Joan Cusack) shouts at him over learning of aspects of his behaviour towards Laura – something Rob admits and explains to the audience, though suggesting if any of us listed the worst things we’d ever done, without any explanation, we’d all sound like assholes.
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The film also charts how what we want changes over time, with life experience, and according to confidence level. After Charlie, Rob takes up with Sarah (Lili Taylor), a damaged, depressed lady that shares Rob’s fear – at the early age of 26 – that they may be alone forever otherwise. Two broken people having lost the people they truly believe they loved, settle for each other. When he catches up with Sarah in the present she continues to have mental health battles, though the film glosses over this fairly quickly. Rob was simply going through a melancholic phase, where he feared loneliness, and felt undeserving of anyone he’d really want.
With Penny, he was a popular high school kid, with Charlie, he was probably out of his depth at college, and grateful for the attention. Laura would have been the proper ‘grown-up’ relationship, but, like many of us, he was reluctant to let go of his self-image as youthful and a little rebellious. High Fidelity holds a mirror up to the male psyche in so many ways, that it is hard to believe there are not at least some aspects of it that will resonate with most men. This, the aforementioned The Grifters and 1997’s Grosse Pointe Blank were probably, to-date, the high water marks of John Cusack’s career, and one of the best works Frears ever brought to the screen.
High Fidelity was first released in the UK on 21st July 2000.