Movies We Love: High Fidelity


High Fidelity (2000)

What fucking Ian guy?!


A hipper-than-thou misanthrope named Rob Gordon (John Cusack) reevaluates his life after being dumped by his girlfriend Laura (Iben Hjejle). Between running his own vinyl store, dealing with the idiocy of the Musical Moron Twins (Todd Louiso as Dick and Jack Black as Barry), and shepherding along the musical sounds of two shoplifting skater punks, he tracks down his All-Time Top Five breakups to figure out why he’ll always be doomed to be rejected.

Why We Love It

I’m not too proud to admit that I let the scenarios and emotional responses in this movie inform every opinion I have about dating and romance. It’s sweet and sad, yet the humor is dead on – mostly displaying what almost every human has gone through during a breakup. Those moments. The tossing and turning at imagining your ex, the person you’ve just been cut off from having that comfortable, intimate relationship with, having the best sex of her life with someone new. The obsession over what one word in a sentence means (“what would it mean to you if I said ‘I haven’t seen Evil Dead II, yet?'”). The constant worry that you’re somehow not good enough. All of it is depressing, but High Fidelity presents it in such a way that never gets too dark. Rob is moody and frustrated, but it’s not like he ever throws on a Cure album. There’s always a cutting sense of comedy to it all. And if his plight doesn’t hit you where it hurts, you’ve probably never been in love before.

So maybe it takes being on the wrong end of a breakup to truly fall for this film. From presentation to dialog to characters, there’s so much to dig into. The arid monologue delivery as Rob speaks directly to the audience about his Top Fives, his relationships, his feelings – it would almost never work in another movie with a different actor, but John Cusack pulls it off. It’s a rare thing that a movie features so many inner thoughts displayed plainly and cleanly to the audience while staying fresh and interesting, yet Cusack not only stays interesting, he delivers some of the most memorable (and quotable) lines of the whole film.

Speaking of which – another fantastic feature of this movie is the giant list of quotes it created. And what’s brilliant – they range from the poignantly heartfelt (“First of all you’re using someone else’s poetry to express how you feel. This is a delicate thing.”) to the comically absurd (“Angina’s tough!”). Somehow, through writing and delivery, the film manages to place the absurdity of Barry’s musical snobbery next to a scene where Laura tells Rob that her father’s died. Even though the tone switches back and forth between deep emotion and comedy (much like relationships. Eh? Eh?) everything works because it feels so real. How obsessed with the writing am I? I own a copy of the production script signed by the entire cast.

And, of course, I can’t forget about the music. Holy hell, the music. Marin Gaye. The Beta Band. Stereolab. Is that Peter Fucking Frampton? Not only does it have one of the coolest soundtracks on the planet, it uses the music really wisely, taking Rob’s own advice of using someone else’s poetry to express character’s feelings. I’ll admit that it’s a bit of a music snob’s fantasy – all of that vinyl, all of it some of the best music made in the modern era – but even if you didn’t know who Stiff Little Fingers were before you saw it, you could still jam to Stevie Wonder, right? And that’s another part of the musical appeal. If you’re open to it, the film is really educational, dropping little tidbits about who influenced Green Day or why you shouldn’t leave records stacked on top of one another.

But it’s really the people that you fall in love with. Through these idiosyncratic conversations, you get to know a ton of characters that never seem flat – most of whom end up getting lines that sum up exactly who they are like Dick only wishing to be somewhere in the background of a fantasy musician girlfriend’s life or almost everything out of Barry’s fat mouth. There’s nothing stereotypical about the story, not a bad performance in the bunch (although Hjejle has some problems with maintaining an American accent), and it makes you root for a couple that has treated each other poorly simply because you can see how genuinely they love each other.

And isn’t that the whole point of the movie? These people care deeply for one another, but they can’t quite figure out how to make it work.

What’s even more fascinating is that we never get to see Rob and Laura as a couple. The story starts with them breaking up, and we have to deal with the usual hearsay and opinion-giving that goes on when two people split. We get to see what happens when a man breaks down and loses it – somehow navigating his way through the minefield of trying to get back together.

Taken as a comedy, it’s hilarious. As a drama, it’s heartfelt. As a study in male behavior, it’s spot on. You can watch it with your significant other or right after being dumped. It’s therapeutic but frustrating. It’s a brief look at a what happens when a man who grew up listening to pop music, a man who is of the temperament to worry about being alone forever at the age of 26, has his heart broken and needs to get his shit together.

Moment We Fell In Love

Like any movie we choose for this column, it’s tough to decide which scene in particular solidifies its status as the kind of film we’d leave our girlfriend for. What do you base your choice on? The funniest debate between Barry and Dick? The awkward tension of Picking Up Stuff Time? The wisdom of Marie De Salle or Charlie Nicholson? Of course watching Rob dig through his past yields some of the best scenes of the film, but how does one pick from that lot?

There are so many tragically funny moments. Rob yelling “Charlie! You bitch! Let’s work it out!” in the rain. Penny telling Rob that he broke her heart and ruined sex for her until after college followed by him feeling completely absolved. Charlie telling him exactly what kind of man he is.

All of these are memorable, new classic scenes from a fantastic film, but the scene that I almost always spend half an hour rewinding and playing over and over again is a little scene where Ian confronts Rob in the record store. Just as you can see this film as a comedy, a drama or a study of the male psyche – this scene is a microcosm of the entire tone of the film. Ian brings his ponytail and bullshit calming voice to tell Rob to stop calling ten times a night and what follows are the scenarios that would go through every man’s mind.

  • Rob yells right back, telling Ian to get his patchouli stink out of his store then calmly turns around, lights a cigarette and calls Ian a dumb muthafucka under his breath.
  • Rob jumps to attack Ian and is held back by Barry and Dick as he screams about getting revenge and ten calls a night being the Golden Era.
  • Dick takes action by slamming the telephone into Ian’s stupid face (spewing out five of six teeth), and the gang beats the hell out of him with kicks to the stomach and an air conditioning unit to the head.

Of course, in reality, Rob doesn’t do any of these things. He looks sullenly toward the man who’s just told him off with nothing to say, and Ian walks out of the store without consequence. It’s a scene that can make you wet yourself laughing and then make you feel about as low as you can possibly get. Genius.

Final Thoughts

Although High Fidelity might not be for everyone (like fans of “I Just Called to Say I Love You”) it’s a brilliantly woven story where iconic characters bring to life a universal subject in a fresh way. Not to mention it’s one of the best (if not the best) Jack Black performances out there. Infinitely quotable, deep, and as cool as a Sonny Rollins concert in Antarctica, the film is a love story without pretense. It taught us that it’s not really what you’re like, but what you like that matters. It showed us that even an asshole deserves some love. Most of all, it told us that at some point you have to stop jumping from stone to stone, realize that the fantasy never delivers, and start making a tape of things that the love of your life would like. Hopefully, you can start to see how that’s done.

A veteran of writing about movies for nearly a decade, Scott Beggs has been the Managing Editor of Film School Rejects since 2009. Despite speculation, he is not actually Walter Mathau's grandson. See? He can't even spell his name right.

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