Stephen Frears’ smart adaptation of Nick Hornby’s novel of stunted growth remains as compelling as ever with one of John Cusack’s best performances
Rob Gordon is kind of a jerk. And High Fidelity, based on Nick Hornby’s incisive dissection of the pop-addled male brain, is about the process of him becoming a little less of a jerk. It didn’t seem necessary to point that out 20 years ago, when the film received exactly the niche appreciation it was destined to find, but it does now, because it’s not often we’re given a hero as blinkered as Rob Gordon and not told how we’re supposed to feel about him
In fairness, Rob is the one doing the telling here, and he’s played by John Cusack, the affable goof of “Savage” Steve Holland comedies like Better Off Dead and One Crazy Summer, and the ingratiating underachiever of Say Anything …, which had established him as a tender romantic soul about a decade earlier. When Cusack was cast as the lead in High Fidelity, it was hard not to think of him as a grownup version of Lloyd Dobler in Say Anything … – just as aimless and uncertain about the future, but coarsened by failed relationships and the grinding inertia of his professional life. Lloyd didn’t want “to sell anything, buy anything or process anything as a career”, but here he is, buying and selling records at Championship Vinyl, a Chicago record store with a location “chosen to attract a minimum of foot traffic”.
The Lloyd Dobler comparison doesn’t hold up much to scrutiny, however. At no point in his life has Rob possessed Lloyd’s earnestness, openness and emotional generosity. At roughly the same age Lloyd was out there escorting the valedictorian around a patch of grass in the parking lot, Rob was breaking up with his girlfriend for not yielding to his aggressive advances. As High Fidelity ticks through his “desert island, all-time top-five most memorable breakups”, Rob gets the opportunity to explain himself directly to the camera – an ingenious solution to the confessional first-person style of Hornby’s book. But it doesn’t mean that we, the jury, are going to find him persuasive. If anything, Rob’s journey through his romantic past reveals how little he’s learned or changed over time. And the film is richer for it.