Can’t Sell You This Today

Grosse Pointe Blank

This is, strangely, the third time I’m reviewing the 2000 High Fidelity in my life. I had a very old review from back when this site was The Domain and I updated it in between classes (or, more honestly, during classes) when I was in college. That review was so bad I don’t even have it posted on this site, instead opting to have only the repost I did later that I heavily edited to make it halfway readable. Still, I’ve made a promise to myself re-review all that old content and to make new, better reviews for everything not already touched since the relaunch of Asteroid G in 2018. As such, for the third time, let’s discuss High Fidelity.

I feel like, at this point, the only way to really talk about this film is to address the protagonist of the movie, Rob Gordon. Played by John Cusack (in a very John Cusack performance, with the whole sad sack, aimless, neurotic, slacker vibe), Rob is an asshole. He’s actually a self-admitted asshole, with a big scene in the middle part of the movie where Rob discusses all the reasons why his most recent relationship failed and why he’s a shitty person. It’s actually a key moment for him because it also marks the point where Rob actually wants to shift and maybe, just maybe, change just a little. This is his big moment, but to get there, in a way, he has to admit he’s hit rock bottom.

But because of that, for a good half of the film, Rob is an asshole. He’s a likable asshole because he’s played by John Cusack, mind you. I don’t think there are many other people that could take a character like Rob and make them into someone you actually want to watch. There was the 2020 HuluOriginally created as a joint streaming service between the major U.S. broadcast networks, Hulu has grown to be a solid alternative to the likes of Netflix and Amazon Prime, even as it learns harder on its collection of shows from Fox and FX since Disney purchased a majority stake in the service. series that lasted for one season before getting canceled, which kind of proves that point. It’s not that the star of that series, Zoë Kravitz, was bad in the role, per se, but more that to make the character of Rob work (guy or girl) you have to have a certain personality. A way of selling the sad sack without it becoming too sad or annoying. I don’t blame Kravitz, it’s just that few are as good in a role like this as Cusack.

A lot of that is because of the fact that, for a good half of the movie, you don’t necessarily like Rob. He’s a guy that has literally just been dumped by his girlfriend (in the opening scene of the movie) and he’s struggling with his big emotions. He yells, he mopes, he struggles, going through all the phases of the break up across the first two acts of the film. He blames the women who dumped him, the world around him, and fate for the reasons why his relationships dissolved, and all the way you see him as this guy that’s never had to grow up, or try, and he just coasts through life. He is, in point of fact, a truly unlikable character.

And yet… You do. Part of that is Cusack, who is able to make a character like this charming. He’s all the things I listed above, all the flaws you see, but Cusack has this charismatic, infectious delivery such that even while you hate Rob and his actions, you like hanging out with him. He’s a guy you want to hang out with and chat music and movies and comics because you know he’s going to have interesting perspectives. You won’t always agree with him, and in fact I’d bet most of the time you hate his opinions on things, but they will at least be interesting opinions all the same.

There’s also the fact that the film is very energetic in its delivery. Rob, as a character, breaks the fourth wall often, talking directly to the camera as if we’re his inner monologue. It’s a bit of a cheat, of course, a way to bring the running internal monologue and flashbacks of the original book (High Fidelity from 1995, written by Nick Hornby) into the movie without having to drastically rewrite the tone and style of the story. The movie does take some liberties, switching the action from England to America, updating some characters, references, and the ending, but overall the film and the book work on the same wavelengths. And that means letting the patter of Rob run rampant.

Rob discusses, with us, his top break ups, the highs and lows of his life, alongside the best ways to make a mixtape, or to organize records, or to build a relationship. He chats with his co-workers (at the record shop he owns, Championship Vinyl) about movies and music. And then he rages to himself in his office about all the twists and turns in life while he tries to figure out why his relationships fail and what he could do to change things. And then when he finally realizes what needs to be changed, the movie, and his own perspective, change as well.

A big reason why this movie is well liked is because it takes the time to let Rob go on a real journey. He starts off in one place in his life and his evolution is slow, by movie standards, but he does eventually get his ass in gear. He figures out the issues in his relationships (his own attitude), he is actually able to make amends with his ex, Laura, and he’s even able to see some kind of future for himself. He finds a project to follow on and actually decides to do something with his life beyond simply running a record store that barely gets any business. He wants more, and that’s really where Rob needed to be. He started as a slacker and then he finds that he actually could do more with his life.

Plus, the collection of characters around him are also worth watching. Barry, one of Rob’s two employees, is played by Jack Black, who turned in a star-making performance (he was nominated for a number of awards for his role). He’s loud and brash and obnoxious, yes, but also hilarious and Black steals all the scenes he’s in. Meanwhile, Todd Louiso plays Dick and, were John Cusack not already in this role as the lead I’d call Louis a Cusack character. He’s meek and stuttering and he’s very neurotic, played so well by Louiso. The employees really do help to make the movie what it is.

The weak part of the film, honestly, is Iben Hjejle as Laura. This was her first American movie and it does feel like Hjejle struggles with her performance. She’s not as charismatic, or interesting, or infectious as the other actors in this movie. There are a lot of great actors beyond the ones I’ve already listed, from Catherine Zeta-Jones, Lili Taylor, and Joelle Carter as Rob’s other exes, to Sara Gilbert as a love interest for Todd, and Lisa Bonet as Marie DeSale, a musician Rob has a fling with halfway into the movie. Any of these women I think would have been better in the lead role as Laura as they could have sold the chemistry between Rob and Laura.

That’s the real part that’s missing, the connection between these two characters. We know Rob loves Laura and wants her back because he tells us that. He shows us his emotion, and his words are clear about his intention. But when he and Laura are in the same room together, I just don’t feel it. The spark is missing, and considering Cusack can sell it when it’s just him, on his own, telling us about her, I feel like Hjejle is the weak link here, sad to say. She went on to have a long career, mostly in Denmark, and I think that was probably where she would truly be able to shine, acting in her native language.

The weak link of Laura doesn’t sink the movie because Laura isn’t a strong presence in the film. This is Rob’s movie and Cusack sells it well (the other versions, novel and TV show, are the same way, focusing on their versions of Rob while Laura/Mac remain on the sidelines). Still, I wish the central relationship that should be the real climax of the film were better. Rob’s journey is great, his evolution in the character he should be feels earned. If Laura is going to be his goal, she needs to gel… and she doesn’t quite.

But still, even then, I like this movie. It’s a well made, infectiously fun film. It feels honest and real even as Rob is breaking the fourth wall and bitching about life. In fact, maybe that’s why it feels real, because we’re in Rob’s head and get to hear all his unfiltered stupidity. High Fidelity works as a character study of a guy that needs to get his shit together, and when he finally does, the movie feels like it really sings.