WHY JOHN CUSACK’S “HIGH FIDELITY” IS A TERRIBLE MOVIE
This movie is troubling.
Sometimes you really have to wonder: if a piece of art is unmistakably disagreeable, what are the rest of the world seeing when they rave about it? Is it mass hysteria? Are people really so bewitched that they believe that it’s good? These are the types of questions that come to mind when examining the cult classic “High Fidelity”.
The film, which is adapted from Nick Hornby’s 1995 novel of the same name, was released in 2000. Yet, it’s been lauded for years as a fantastic piece of pop culture and a well accomplished undertaking of the experience of manhood and apparently spoke of a man’s natural inclinations and thoughts. Is it really? If so, everyone should see this as troubling.
Rob Gordon (John Cusack), the main character of the story, is a loser. It’s not obvious at first because at 30 years old, he owns a record store called Championship Vinyl, he has his own apartment in Chicago, two employees/friends and a hobby. And the characteristics that make him unlikable creep slowly. Overtime though, we learn he’s a chronic cheater, directionless, melancholy, and he takes it out on everyone around him. The movie is about how he copes with the breakup of his relationship with his girlfriend Laura (Iben Hjejle). He centers every interaction around himself, while sweetening facts when convenient so that he can present as a “nice guy.”
In the beginning of “High Fidelity”, what we don’t see in his meaningless rant about the list of women who hurt him is that he often skews memories to benefit himself so that he can play the victim. For instance on the list of his most memorable breakups, the first person he sites really helps to illustrate how delusional Rob is.
Alison Ashmore (Shannon Stillo), a girl he met in seventh grade—when they were both 14—wasn’t even his girlfriend. He said their relationship lasted for six hours (a number he resolved on from accounting for the time they spent kissing over several days) until he caught her kissing another boy named Kevin Bannister (Duke Doyle). But Rob’s interpretation of the short fling to be a relationship despite now being an adult with a better understanding of how committed romantic relationships are formed, amounts to the delusion of those men who imagine dating someone who wasn’t even interested in them. Instead of moving on from that short stint, he held on to it hard, so much so, he said “all my romantic stories are a scrambled version of that first one,” which really cements the idea of how unsteady he is. Again, a loser.
Then there was, Penny Hardwick (Joelle Carter), his second “girlfriend” on his list of top five memorable breakups, who, it turns out, was actually a sweet girl that he took advantage of. They met in high school when they were 16 years old but their relationship was marked by his toxicity. Rob sexually assaulted Penny even though she didn’t realize it at the time. He even confesses this to the viewer within the first ten minutes of the movie when he said:
“She was so nice in fact that she wouldn’t let me put my hand underneath or even on top of her bra. Attack and defence. Invasion and repulsion. It was as if breasts were little pieces of property that had been unlawfully annexed by the opposite sex. They were rightfully ours and we wanted them back. Sometimes I got so bored of trying to touch her breast that I would try to touch her between her legs. It was like trying to borrow a dollar, getting turned down, and asking for 50 grand instead. I wasn’t interested in Penny’s nice qualities, just breasts. And therefore she was no good to me.”
After he rejected her at her doorstep because she refused his sexual advances, you could tell that she was visibly distraught and upset but he didn’t care. He did; however, get upset when later, another student in his class described sleeping with Penny after a few dates. And that’s how he determined that Penny was a heartbreaker. Unbelievably crazy right? Here is a guy who sexually assaulted her, disrespected her body and agency, a guy who only cared that someone else may have had sex with her when he didn’t, and yet who also contrived a self-serving story about how she hurt him. His reprehensible personality is made more poignant when later as an adult, on his quest to rebuild his self-esteem, he sits with her for dinner to revisit their relationship and discovers that in fact she had been sexually assaulted back then. Again, he didn’t care. His response was, “my God, she’s right. I broke up with her. I rejected her.” He is just so absurd, so extremely chaotic, that it almost feels like the movie is a satire about self-righteous and elitist people, but it’s not.
The viewing experience is especially made worse by Rob’s narcissism. He cheated on Laura while she was pregnant and she was so upset she decided to have an abortion. After the abortion, he borrowed over four thousand dollars from Laura and he didn’t pay it back. Before she left him, he told her that he was unhappy in their relationship and was looking for someone else. Yet somehow, all this information is glossed over when people write reviews about “High Fidelity” and as a result, Laura’s pain and ultimately, the protests and laments of female characters in the story fall on deaf ears. Rob had no remorse after confessing this either, instead he tried to justify his actions to the viewer. Yet somehow people are able to conjure up an image of Rob, where he’s presented as charming and relatable but to who exactly?
Rob’s total lack of respect for women is egregious. He doesn’t respect his mother, his girlfriend, nor women that he meets in passing. Even his need to create mixtapes for attractive women is rooted in misogyny. Hornby affirmed this in his NPR interview with Terry Gross in 1995, when she commented about how common it is for boys and men to seek relationships where their partner is younger or inexperienced so that they can be a mentor. In response, Hornby said, “in the book, in “High Fidelity,” Rob Fleming spends a lot of his time making compilation tapes for women that he meets. And it’s – you know, I guess it’s like – in a way, in a rather unpleasant way, it’s like dogs and lampposts and setting your mark in some way.”
This entitlement to women as property is shown repeatedly. In particular, Rob’s line of questioning towards Laura to confirm that she didn’t slept with their neighbour Ian (Tim Robbins), is a selfish and sexist performance disguised as a loving plea, especially since he sleeps with local singer, Marie De Salle (Lisa Bonet) afterwards. Plainly put, he is incorrigible and he tells the audience this whenever he can. For one, he even broke down the script he uses to manipulate women into sexual encounters with him. To win Marie and break down her barriers, he spoke about Laura in a superficially kind way to create intimacy, feigned nervousness, expressed regret he didn’t feel and even complimented Laura while still trying to project a deep sadness. “Which is all bull shit, really,” he says. “I’ve just invented a sketch of a decent, sensitive guy because I’m in the position to invent him.”
Considering all this, it’s understandable why Laura keeps returning to him. She’s in a toxic relationship with a manipulative guy who is skilled in charming others. The fact that Laura lacks a good support system and someone to stop her from returning to him is troubling (which we learned is very important to have from shows like “Well Intended Love.”) With no real friends and disappointing parents, no one is able to protect Laura from Rob. So Naturally, Rob’s access to Laura is so loose, when her father dies, her mother invites him to her father’s funeral.
There is no excuse for a character like Rob. You can be eccentric and directionless and still be a kind, good natured human being. We don’t even have to look further than Barry Judd (Jack Black) or Dick (Todd Louiso) to see that. (Both characters were hilarious and lovably weird.) Ultimately, the film was supposed to be a kind of coming of age story about a guy in his thirties, who is on a journey to learn and become better, but he didn’t grow at all. That’s why “High Fidelity” was so disappointing.
Rob is wrong. What you are like matters but what you like doesn’t matter as much. He showed us time and time again that he’s an asshole. But go for it, try and defend him.