The Music Or The Misery: Heartbreak and High Fidelity

Written By: Daniel Kinsley

What are your top five break up movies? *

Take your time, and really think about it. While it may not be the sort of thing you have considered before, it feels very much in the wheelhouse of a character like Rob Gordon (John Cusack) in High Fidelity (2000). Adapted from a novel of the same name by Nick Hornby, Fidelity tells the story of Rob, music junkie, compulsive list-maker, hopeless romantic, and self-absorbed sad sack.

Owner and operator of Championship Vinyl in Chicago, Rob spends his time alongside his two employees, the “musical moron twins”, Dick (Todd Louiso) and Barry (Jack Black) dissecting the musical merits of everything from the best recording artists to the musical crimes committed by Stevie Wonder in the 80s. There is an encyclopedic knowledge between the three pedants, and Barry in particular, seems to enjoy lording it over their customers. All three are the sort of people you have met at least once in your life; each of them clearly passionate, but a little too snobby and ultimately too emotionally inarticulate to make the most of their gifts.

When Rob is dumped by his girlfriend, Laura (Iben Hjejle) he decides to recount his top-five previous break-ups and visit each woman in turn; as Bruce Springsteen puts it in a delightful cameo, once he gives “that big final good luck and goodbye” to the top five, then he will be able to feel better about his latest failure and move on to the next chapter. It is a deceptively simple set-up, and it is to the filmmakers’ great credit that it does not get bogged down with further machinations or typical rom-com obstacles. It is enough for the film to be filled with humor and pathos in equal measure, along with painfully wry observations about the messes we all make. Rob spends a good deal of the film breaking the fourth wall, communicating directly with the viewer about his inner thoughts, and they are often as insightful and hilarious as they are heartbreaking. At their heart, many break-up films are the story of the ultimate man-child, and there may be no better example than this one.** Rob is essentially a teenager at heart, spending time with his friends arguing about records, and the significance of music, but mostly about women and how so many seem to have done him wrong.

While the independent record-store fell out of favor for a time, the notion does not feel as antiquated in 2017 as one might have expected after the invention of the iPod. It is easy to imagine that Rob and co. might still be around, now donning plaid and fedoras and living in a gentrified section of Brooklyn. For a film about people obsessed with music, the film is positively awash in it; the soundtrack is filled with a number of classics, both familiar and obscure, and no shortage of debates about the tops. Rob even helpfully supplies some of the many rules in the art of the mixtape, or how to use “someone else’s poetry to express how you feel.”

Perhaps one of the reasons the film has aged so well is that it feels very much of its time, but also timeless, in the way it speaks to a prevalent attitude in young men of all generations. As a fellow Porkchop contributor pointed out **, Rob endures as a character because it is very easy for a young man to idolize him, only to find that with age, he becomes the kind of person you look down on. There is an emphasis in a segment of pop culture that seems to posit there is something romantic about identifying with the Holden Caulfields of the world, without ever pointing out that his behavior is insufferable, and owed to far deeper issues than a few idiosyncrasies.

As Rob embarks on an odyssey to visit his top five exes (respectively: Alison Ashmore, Penny Hardwick, Jackie Alden, Charlie Nicholson, and Sarah Kendrew ***), he learns a great deal about why he has come to view the world–and the women in his life–the way he does. While his insight into the past is not always piercing, or even for that matter, surface level, there are hints that the man who once cheated on his pregnant girlfriend, or dumped a girl because she would not sleep with him quickly enough is beginning to see that so many of his problems are his. The film never endorses his behavior, but as Rob recounts, he was hurt by a girl when he was young and ever since then has believed that each subsequent relationship would end the same way. **** All of his selfish behavior is a coping mechanism–a self-destructive one, to be sure–as each time he feels a pang that there may be something better suited, that feels less like work, something that just fits better, he springs for it.

Without having realized it until she was gone, Laura changes the entire dynamic of his self-destruction. As he describes it, “She didn’t make me miserable, or anxious, or ill at ease. You know, it sounds boring, but it wasn’t. It wasn’t spectacular either. It was just good. But really good.” It is essentially a spin on the classic question of what happens after you get what you want? For someone like Rob, you seek conflict, because no satisfaction could ever be real enough to last. After Laura leaves, and seeks solace in the arms of Ian (Tim Robbins), Rob is consumed with thoughts that no one in the history of the world is having better sex than Laura is right now with Ian. It is essentially the ultimate fear of one consumed by toxic-masculinity, and it is enables Rob to justify the belief that he is cursed somehow to be doomed by each woman he meets.

It is for this reason that the tour of his exes is so important; while it does not redefine who he is, (even when faced with his failures, Rob remains at times spectacularly unaware of his own role in the way things went down) it does start him on the path to introspection, just enough to begin to undo his destructive tendencies. It does not make for the sort of explosive melodrama many lesser romantic comedies opt for, but it feels much more true to life, as we often learn incrementally and grow even slower. The conclusions that Rob come to are not revolutionary, and they do not undo much of his self-induced misery, but they feel like progress, and may be recognizable to anyone who has been through a few bad break-ups of their own. There is a sub-set of viewers in the right age range that will identify with Rob’s ultimate fear that he will end up alone, or worse, choose wrong and be handcuffed to a commitment he no longer wants. Ultimately, he lands on a small, but cathartic point: real lasting happiness may not always be quite as exuberant, or filled with sexy lingerie, as one might have believed, but that does not make it any less satisfying.

The best films about break-ups end with the protagonist experiencing some sort of growth, able to make peace with their conflict, at least to a degree. It has been said (and in the case of the film, it is certainly true) that women mature emotionally faster than men. In that way, it feels as if Laura recognizes the potential of who Rob can be, and only leaves him when she has given up too much of herself without sufficient reciprocity to remain. For equilibrium to be restored, Rob must step outside of himself and understand that it–in particular, his relationship with Laura and the life they have made–is enough. A young man will exhaust himself leaping from one lily pad to the next, and as Rob admits, he was guilty of always leaving one foot out the door, without ever fully committing to Laura. It is not only a fear of vulnerability, but a fear of letting go of his self-aggrandizing, his excuses, and most of all, the possibility that this–the life he is living at this moment–might be all there is from now on. Toward the end of the film, Rob hints that he is beginning to understand this, and to relinquish many of the same things that are holding him back when he meets with Laura.

“You have great lingerie, but you also have the cotton underwear that’s been washed a thousand times, and it’s hanging on the thing and, and they have it too! It’s just I don’t have to see it because it’s not in the fantasy. Do you understand? I’m tired of the fantasy because it doesn’t really exist. And there are never really any surprises, and it never really.”
“Delivers. Right. And I’m tired of it. And I’m tired of everything else, for that matter. But I don’t ever seem to get tired of you.”

It is an admittedly heavy reading of a romantic comedy, but make no mistake, it is above all else a comedy, albeit one with something slyly on its mind. Cusack is called upon to carry the film, and like many of his best roles, it plays to his specific neurotic persona. As co-writer of the film (along with Steve Pink, D.V. DeVincentis, and Scott Rosenberg) he found a part perfectly tailored to his strengths. Jack Black is similarly deployed to near perfect effect, finding a balance in his pitch between the obnoxious and the sweet. But the whole thing would not totally work without Iben Hjejle to make the audience believe that Rob is worth loving, in spite of all of his baggage. She does great, understated work, and while Rob is the one who breaks the fourth wall to speak directly to us, it is Laura who is the true beating heart of the film.

As soon as Rob is able to understand that there exists a world beyond the one he has spent years hiding in, suddenly there is new life granted to his relationship with Laura. It is not a fantasy, because the fantasy does not last, and more importantly, it is only a fantasy. It is significant that the film ends with Rob, finally able to begin formulating a soundtrack for Laura, this great love of his life, that has nothing to do with him. As he puts it, “I’ve started to make a tape…in my head…Full of stuff she likes. Full of stuff that makes her happy. For the first time I can sort of see how that’s done.” Perhaps for the first time in his life, he is not the only thing that matters to himself, and the world is better for it.

* For this writer, it’s a list that would include Forgetting Sarah Marshall (2008), Swingers (1996), (500) Days Of Summer (2009), Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind (2004) and High Fidelity (2000) [in no particular order]

** This idea is credited to fellow Porkchop writer François-Noël Vanasse and used with his permission.

*** Rob later admits Sarah was only included to knock Laura out of contention, and Laura takes her place on the top-five.

**** It is, admittedly, something that most of us would not remember at all, or have laughed off over so much time, but it’s telling of the kind of person that Rob is that he would remember and it would be such a poisonous seed.

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