Just on the basis of two adaptations of his novels for the big screen (this film and the underrated “About a Boy”), British writer Nick Hornby has a keen sense of the contemporary male. Obsessed about geek things. Emotionally stunted. And royally screwed up when it comes to women.
That last part is key to Stephen Frears’ “High Fidelity,” which is adapted for the screen by star John Cusack and his writing partners D.V. DeVincentis and Steve Pink (“Con Air’s” Scott Rosenberg also has credit for reasons of Writer’s Guild politics), who also wrote the 1997 gem “Grosse Pointe Blank.” It’s a tailor-made role for Cusack. The master of male romantic angst (if you doubt me, watch “Say Anything,” “The Sure Thing,” and “Grosse Pointe Blank” for proof), Cusack’s Rob Gordon is another misfit in that line. He runs his own record store in Chicago, has geeky conversations with his employees at the store (Jack Black and Todd Louiso) about everything from movies and music to snobbery about both, and has a good thing going with Laura (Iben Hjejle).
Or he did. As the film starts, Rob is listening to an album from his massive as Laura is getting her stuff to move out. Things aren’t working for them anymore. In a fit of rage, Rob yells out at her the type of crap guys think when something like that happens. He also goes into his “all-time, desert island” Top 5 breakups. Laura isn’t on there…yet. But as Rob obsesses about what went wrong, he starts to get to the real meat-and-potatoes of where his relationships have gone south.
For some, Rob is no doubt a hard protagonist to get behind. He speaks directly to the camera with a narcissistic self-involvement. When it comes to women, there’s a contempt and lack of his own responsibility that can be a turn-off to some viewers. But the truth is- some of us are really like that. Don’t get me wrong- I’m not particularly proud of my bouts of emotional self-righteousness, but you know what? The film thrives off of Rob’s emotional uneasiness, making his ultimate turnaround all the more satisfying.
If this film starred anyone but Cusack, I don’t think the film would be tolerable. It’d be too neurotic, too broad, too tilted towards the comedy. That’s where a star like Cusack- who likes going against the grain of what we’d expect from a main actor- and a director like Frears (who directed Cusack in “The Grifters,” as well as films like “Dangerous Liasions” and “The Queen”) are essential. They get it.
I get it too. The film’s central themes struck a chord with me at 22 when I saw the film. Of course, at the time I was just as riddled with neurosis as Rob (ten years later, I still am at times), but what resonated most with me, and does still, is the nerdiness. The passion for music. 2000 was a year of heartbreak and change for me (my grandfather passed away in July), and this film- along with “Almost Famous,” “Keeping the Faith,” and “Nurse Betty”- was an important part of why I’m around to this day. When Rob, Barry (the character played by Black with elitist glee and broad humor), and Dick (Louiso) are standing around the record store discussing the minutiae of pop culture and music- compiling top 5 list after top 5 list- I’m in movie heaven. True, equal time is given the romantic travails of Rob as he tries to suss out what happened, but you know what? Obsessions are obsessions, regardless of where they stem, and this movie nails the heart of what’s wrong with guys my age- they put more thought into stuff that doesn’t matter than they do the stuff that does. Thankfully, Rob has Liz (played by John’s sister Joan, who always seems at home as a voice of reason) to set him straight. This movie should be essential viewing to guys my age who just can’t seem to figure out why they can’t figure out, well, anything. Maybe it’ll give them a few pointers.