Stephen Frears’ High Fidelity is turning fifteen years old this week, an age that seems oddly appropriate given the state of arrested development in which the film’s protagonist still resides. Initially released in theatres on March 28, 2000, Frears’ adaptation of the classic 1995 Nick Hornby novel is as endearing now as it was at the beginning of the twenty-first century. John Cusack is still in top form as ne’er do well record store clerk Rob Gordon, a young adult whose preoccupations with acquiring a taste for refined musical genres, coupled with his own encyclopedic knowledge of the most arcane EP’s and singles, is still as relevant today as he was when he first appeared in print in the mid 1990’s. Like Hornby’s book, the film’s script, co-written by frequent collaborators John Cusack and Steve Pink, is possessed of a single-minded passion that proves dispassionately stifling, the entrapment inherent in the self-congratulating act of composing top-five-lists a fruitless attempt towards objective definition that is ironically self-isolating. Hornby’s subjective eye for the consciousness of viable single males is hilariously defined, lending the film its prescient satire that still has bite twenty years later.
Much of what makes High Fidelity such a singular romantic comedy comes in its embrace of gender stereotypes; Frear’s deconstruction of the recursive male gaze preternaturally prevalent in films of its type is thoroughly post-modern, making High Fidelity the first modern masterpiece of the twenty-first century within the comedy genre. While it is exceedingly obvious that we are meant to identify with Cusack throughout the film’s comedy of errors, it is also exceedingly clear that there is something lacking in his character. Though Rob claims to have been individually wounded by all of the many women whom he has dated over the course of his young life, he suffers under the delusion that all of these women have vindictively dumped him, and never the other way around. What makes Frears’ film so compelling is the way in which his film makes a mockery of its protagonist. Despite Rob’s ability to break the fourth wall and speak directly to the viewer, his manipulations of the machinations of the film’s plot directly affect the narrative impetus of Frears’ direction. Through Rob’s self-aggrandizement, his subjective point of view is presented in direct contrast with the film’s ability to objectively document the rest of Rob’s world, compositionally redefining everything that Rob exaggerates and improvises, his immaturity the film’s thematic focus and source of comedic punch.
Which is not to say that there isn’t still something inherently lovable about Rob Gordon, even if we as viewers are no longer fifteen years old ourselves. In Hornby’s novel, Rob’s misanthropic ruminations stem from autobiographical extrapolation, the novel’s narrative at least partially informed by the actual mental state of its author, the immaturity at the heart of High Fidelity fraternally shared by its creator and his audience. In Frears’ film, much of this adolescent angst and emotionally wrought fickleness of character is present in the form of John Cusack’s performance, a dramatic turn so heartfelt in its sincerity that Rob becomes a sort of tragically romantic hero. Even though we as viewers know how detrimental the rhetoric at the heart of the film’s script is, we are also aware of how we as viewers are meant to interpret the subjectivity of the film’s point of view, a skewed perception of life and love that only becomes more subversive in its withering accuracy as we the viewers grow in biological years and emotional maturity ourselves.
In High Fidelity, Frears and Cusack are able to comprehensively define what it means to be in your late twenties, out of love, and vocationally directionless, one’s subjective self-importance lending itself to a grasp of social mechanics and art never entirely authentic, detachment lent by irony one’s only lifeboat in a sea of hard realities defined by others with points of view distressingly dissimilar from your own. In Rob Gordon, Cusack plays out this station in life to its logical conclusion, where the ego must eventually be reined in by the moral compulsions of the superego, the id of adolescence relinquished to adulthood and the responsibilities of learning how to be self-less. While compiling a massive record collection that takes up your entire apartment is fun in your twenties, it’s an emotionally devolving act, inherently self-serving and existentially unfulfilling, which is why the materialism of the record store in High Fidelity weighs so heavily as an albatross throughout the film, reinforcing Rob’s isolationism with the temporary comforts found in the doom and gloom of popular music.
In recent years, a number of mainstream successes have taken on the same theme and cinematic tone as Frears’ seminal coming-of-age dramedy, thereby cementing High Fidelity‘s continuing cultural cache and influence. In Marc Webb’s 2009 rom-com (500) Days of Summer, Webb takes a stab at the misogyny inherent to the manic-pixie-dream-girl stereotype typically employed within the genre, wherein the man’s desires trump the presence of any facets of individual personality, his expectations of character accordingly projected onto the girl of his dreams. Like High Fidelity, Webb’s film tackles the male gaze via an entirely subjective point of view. As is the case in Frears’ film, the protagonist’s selfishness dictates the film’s plot, while the narrative is simultaneously subject to the director’s satirical tone, thereby exposing the follies of the single man. Regardless of whether he has the best of intentions at heart or not, Webb’s Tom is an heir apparent to the throne of self-deluded bachelorhood previously held by Rob Gordon, as he embodies a continuation of the same thematic tradition set by High Fidelity, and exemplifies its continuing cultural relevancy, the heterosexual man still as fickle and self-serving as ever.
In such films as Webb’s, the deconstruction of gender roles within the romantic comedy genre is engaged in a way that would seem impossible if it weren’t for Stephen Frears’ High Fidelity, which just might be its shining contribution to film as a whole, and proof of its status of one of the best coming-of-age stories of all time. In Nick Hornby’s 1995 novel, bachelorhood is fraught with a fundamental misunderstanding of the opposite sex rooted in a biological impasse of temperament, the hero trapped by an infantilism inherently male, while women seem to mature at a rate more in keeping with their age. Comparatively, Rob Gordon remains in a state of solipsistic whining that has its roots in such literary forebears as Holden Caulfield, providing a broader historical context for the culture commentary engaged in by the High Fidelity‘s plot. In its celebration of young adulthood as manifested in the typical heterosexual male, High Fidelity is never too morally diagnostic of the social ills that it lampoons, but is decidedly on the side of its female characters, even if its endlessly relatable male protagonist is at the center of our attention. Thankfully, Frears’ film is still as riotously entertaining and intelligent as it ever was, making it one of the great comedies of the still young twenty-first century in motion pictures, and proof of the universal nature of the struggles of man in his quest for the girl of his dreams, forever an ephemeral chimera in the desert of his own imagination and corresponding immaturity.
Featured image: Buena Vista Pictures