Movie Review: High Fidelity

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A sardonic record store owner goes on a journey of self-discovery after being dumped by his girlfriend.

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Stephen Frears, 2000

Snarky, misanthropic Rob (John Cusack) is a record store owner and obsessive music fan. He adds order to his aimless life by creating constant top five lists. When we first meet him, he lists the top five break-ups of his life, noting that it doesn’t include his recently ex girlfriend Laura (Iben Hjelje). He resolves to get closure on these break-ups by confronting the women on the list about their rejection of him. Meanwhile, he and Laura both start seeing other people. Rob starts to realise he may not be as over Laura as he thought, when the idea of her being with hippie Ian (Tim Robbins), and he takes out his frustrations on his employees, including the outspoken Barry (Jack Black). Through his interactions and direct-to-camera monologues, Rob wonders if the person who’s holding him back might actually be himself.

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I’ve actually seen the musical version of this movie, which is decidedly less interesting than than the film. This dilution makes me think the Nick Hornby novel┬áboth are based on must be a really good read. In spite of a location shift to America, the film retains a certain undeniable Britishness in its sensibilities. What’s interesting about High Fidelity is that Rob is a very relateable asshole nerd, and the journey he goes through ought to be confronting for anyone who watches it and identifies with the character. Essentially, Rob is stuck; he’s in his mid-thirties, he has no passion for his job, he hates his friends, he’s had a string of break-ups, and the best person in his life has just walked out on him because, honestly, the ambitious, kind lawyer Laura can do a hell of a lot better. His commentary on the women and girls who broke his heart (one of whom was his girlfriend when they were about 12) is cruel, sexist, and nasty. He has a Bernard Black-style disdain for the world that is entertaining to watch, but uncomfortable to relate to when he’s called on it. Each of the exes he visits teaches him something new about himself: namely, for the most part, that he is wrong about everything and generally a horrible person. It’s only by opening himself up and seeing the best in the people around him that he can hope to fix his life.

The film uses an unusual mix of fourth-wall breaking narrative that lets us get into Rob’s head more effectively than the more traditional narrative. We’re Rob’s confidantes, his buddies, a reflection of him, and we see him change before he does. Though the locations are fairly limited – it actually works quite well as a play in that regard – but this narrative style keeps the energy high. Iben Hjelje is brilliant as Laura, in a role that could easily be thankless; she portrays Laura’s awesomeness in spite of the fact that her first act is to dump our protagonist. This may be the John Cusack-iest of John Cusack roles; it’s easy to see Say Anything’s optimistic underachiever Lloyd Dobler growing up to be the insulated Rob. Meanwhile, in his breakout role, Jack Black steals every scene he’s in despite his character’s utter dickery. It must have been a genuine surprise to hear him break out those pipes at the end of the film when it first came out, and he gets a great musical number. Overall, I found the film to be much more than what I was expecting, although I have a very strong suspicion that an awful lot of people like this movie for all the wrong reasons.

High Fidelity on IMDb

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