RIORI Vol. 2, Installment 36: Stephen Frears’ “High Fidelity” (2000)


High-Fidelity-poster-art


The Players…

John Cusack, Iben Hjejle, Jack Black and Todd Louiso, with Catherine Zeta-Jones, Lisa Bonet, Sara Gilbert, Joan Cusack and Tim Robbins.


The Story…

Once again, cranky audiophile Rob Gordon has been dumped by…oh, it doesn’t matter. They’re all the same, ever since middle school. After this latest failure of a relationship, Rob decides to do some soul-searching; to figure out what’s gone wrong in his life when it comes to the opposite sex. It may be a lack of maturity. Or his caustic attitude. Or most likely, he identifies better with the music in his unfeasible record collection than actual socializing. Whatever the reason may be, Rob’s going to be adrift and alone forever if he doesn’t take off the headphones.


The Rant:

Here we go again with another music-themed movie, and you just know your not-so-humble blogger is going to either rail on and on about corporate rock and/or rail on and on about his psychotic record collection.

Nope.

Not this time. Not gonna do it. We’ve got something else under the lens today: movies based on pre-existing media. In the case of High Fidelity, books.

With any movie adaptation of a pre-existing literary form—a Shakespearean play, a novel, a comic book, etc.—the director has to walk a very loose tightrope, but a tightrope nonetheless. I say loose because we have two sides of an audience to reach here—most of whom are fickle—and we best be flexible.

On one side, the audience that knows the source material, wants to see the director’s vision and interpretation of said source as close as possible, hopefully satisfying the need (sometimes obsession) to see if he got it “right.” People want to see the director’s vision not getting in the way of…well, the director’s vision. You don’t want to have a color-by-numbers, scene-by-scene exact duplication of the original material. That’s a cop-out, especially to those who already read the book and probably loved the book like chocolate, sex and sex-covered chocolate.

On the other side, you don’t want the director to deviate so far from the original idea so to mangle the script, use lame dialogue, and stick in some artistic “flair” that either Hollywood insisted on adding like a happy ending, general sweetening or Jennifer Aniston. That or placating the director’s muse excitedly sh*tting on his head. It’s a delicate balance, and the pissy audience that already read the book—Harry Potter fans, Game of Thrones disciples, Walking Dead adherents and/or Fifty Shades of Grey very desperate housewives—wants it both ways. When it doesn’t work out, it’s usually the audience’s fevered fanboy-ism that’s to blame. Not that they’d ever admit it.

That being said, there have been several notable book-to-film adaptations; some were stellar or at least satisfying. Sam Raimi’s Spider Man 2 springs immediately to mind. My opinion is best validated by rumor having it that when original Spidey artist John Romita, Sr. caught a sneak peak of the film, his comments were more-or-less, “I drew that…Drew that…That too…etc.” Sounds like the movie straddled the line well to me. Other highlights include MASH, the Godfather and the original Die Hard; yes, Die Hard was based on a book. I read the book after seeing the movie like, oh I dunno, a jillion times. I can safely say that here’s one instance where the movie version is superior. All the humor and vulnerability of Bruce Willis’ iconic, relatable everycop John McClane were absent in the book, as well as the hero being actually named “John McClane.”

As a control, Forrest Gump is not a good example. The touchy-feeliness of the movie version was sentimental Hollywood claptrap, which reliably raked in the dollars and awards; the novel was pessimistic with a capital P, Jenny. Another bad example, oddly enough, is Die Hard 2. Yes, yes, it was based on a book, too. A very good book, BTW. Hack director Renny Harlin chewed it up and spat it out and made a good, taut action/thriller novel into the ur-Michael Bay summer blockbuster. Lots of boom, bullets and bad dialogue. Yippee-ki-yay.

So why do some adaptations work and others limp? Like I said, walking the tightrope. There has to be enough cuts from the original roast to remain true to the spirit of the book, yet have enough directorial sensitivity to respect the lifted material while still adding a unique spin. This is usually done with visuals, dialogue and above all else acting. That and a kick-ass screenwriter like Ted “The Silence of the Lambs” Tally or Richard “The Quiet Man” Llewellyn don’t hurt none. All of it as a whole must be executed with extremely extreme prejudice. In simpler words: don’t dupe the audience. There’s a good chance they already read the book well before the movie hype hit the dailies. Ask any Shakespeare aficionado. Or Spider-Man fanboy.

Some books-turned-movies use the device of a narrator, and sometimes it works. Fight Club employed a narrator (to go so far as to credit Edward Norton simply as “Narrator”), so did Forrest Gump (and despite that movie’s squishiness, it worked too) and also Taxi Driver, A Christmas Story, The Big Lebowski, Apocalypse Now, GoodFellas and—before God—Dances with Wolves. These all worked. High Fidelity uses a narrator too. What separates this movie from the others is the deliberate shattering of “the fourth wall.”

For those who don’t know the reference, I’ll share. Look, it’s not as if the readers out there on the Interweb are thick, it’s just I want to be clear. I gather that most of us are of decent intelligence; of a curious nature that draws the lot of y’all to sh*t-digging social experiments like this one. I can get obtuse in my rumination at RIORI, so I’m making a point out of this one. It’s vital to the movie as a whole.

The “breaking of the fourth wall” is a theatrical reference in which a player steps out of character to directly address the audience. Bill Shakespeare (him again) did this often, like in his drama Othello where the baddie kept telling the audience about his nefarious plans, mwa-ha-ha. The best example used I can recall in modern cinema is in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Our protag makes asides to the audience enhancing the action to what’s happening (or will happen) onscreen. For High Fidelity, not unlike Day Off, it augments the comic aspects of the movie. Unlike Fidelity, all the wink-wink/nudge-nudge bets are off.

All right, lecture’s over. Hand in your blue books.

*cheers, applause, sighs of relief, lines to the bathroom*

Hmm. It seems like I’ve already chewed apart our latest installment before the synopsis is out there. Glad you caught me…


Laura (Hjejle) left. She finally had her fill of Rob (Cusack), his musical obsessions and his generally mopey attitude. She’s just another failed relationship in Rob’s seemingly endless line of failed relationships. Now he’s alone, bitter and the only companionship he can find is his unwieldy record collection.

What went wrong?

Rob now plays out days at his semi-failing record shop, Championship Vinyl, dealing with the snobby opinions of his “musical moron twins,” blithering Barry (Black) and milquetoast Dick (Louiso). Nights are spent organizing and reorganizing his LPs, ruminating over the notion that maybe he’s doomed to live alone forever.

Again, what went wrong?

In a rare moment of clarity, Rob does some soul-searching. He recalls his “top five, all-time breakups,” and how they happened. His sifts through his address book and decides to track down his exes to see if there was a pattern forming; what led to his undoing and lowly state. Sure, it might be painful to go down memory lane, facing some ugly truths about his relations with the opposite sex. But you know what they say: pain means you’re growing.

Rob figures it’s time to man up, stare down adulthood, get some maturity and, well, face the music…


I read High Fidelity well after I saw the movie. A lot of people—the aforementioned fanboy audiences— always claim that the book is always better than the movie. Fidelity is an exception to that belief. I’m not saying that either one was superior to the other. I’m saying with Fidelity as a whole, it didn’t really matter.

The movie is very faithful to the book. Very faithful. Like I said, I read the book after I saw the movie, and it made no difference. That’s how faithful Frears’ adaptation was. There were only three differences between the book and the movie:

  1. The setting. Nick Hornby’s book took place in London. The movie is set in Chicago. Cusack, who co-wrote the screenplay, is a native Chicagoan, as well as a handful of the other actors (Robbins et al). They were all once part of a troupe in the Windy City, and it was at Cusack’s behest that these folks could add something to the movie, enhance the set as tableau. Like the book, London was much a character as Chicago is here. Director Frears—who is English—was originally rather diffident about shooting an English story in an American city until he read the script and met the cast. In the end, where High Fidelity takes place was irrelevant. Some stories, like Hornby’s delightful novel, are universal. Life, love and leaving. That’s what Fidelity is all about.
  2. One scene from the book was deleted, and one was added. In the book, the chapter where Rob went record hunting at a spurned wife’s exes fire sale of his record collection was left out. The subplot about Rob producing a pair of burgeoning amateur musicians was added. Both were metaphor for Rob’s life arrest and eventual getting on with life. Both worked well, and;
  3. In the book, he was Rob Fleming. In the movie, he’s Rob Gordon. Not sure why this was done.

At heart, Fidelity is not a music movie. Right. It does have the soundtrack of my dreams, even Katrina & the Waves and “Most of the Time” is one of my fave, latter-day Dylan songs. But it’s not a music movie. It’s a story about personal responsibility and belated growing up.

It’s a lot of other things, too. Fidelity is a love story to and within Chicago, but the opposite of Ferris Beuller. Frears turned out to be wrong, all right. The setwork is great, and the backdrop of the city makes for a lovely sofa. The setting doesn’t really matter, but it helps the movie took place in a city as diverse as Chicago.

Almost as diverse as Rob’s infeasible record collection. Both are as much characters in the movie as the actors. Rob’s music collection is so intertwined with his personality—and his troubles—it’s like he can’t divorce himself from self-absorption steeped in adolescent fantasies and motives. His whole “art of the mixtape” schtick comes across as both solace and salvation, a la a teen brooding in his room after being not invited to the jocks’ beer bust. In the end, it’s all just juvenile and for naught, especially for a mid-30s bachelor and record geek.

Another thing: most importantly Fidelity is a character study, and without a primo cast like this one, there’d be just another Gen X nostalgia cash cow being milked here. Usually the director guides the actors. According to Frears, Fidelity was the other way around. And the whole thing rests on Cusack’s shoulders. If a lesser actor was employed the whole thing might’ve torn apart at the seams.

Rob is a walking headache. Leave it to Cusack to deliver his role with a slumped-shoulders, Holden Caulfield affect. No matter how old he or his story gets, Rob’s terminally in the 7th grade. It drums up sympathy for a character who really is a drudge, cranky and generally not a guy you’d want to share a beer with. His character does a lot of acting with a hangdog and a blank, baleful, hundred-mile stare. It’s paramount to breaking the fourth wall.

Oh yeah, that. The whole narrator thing? Key.

The DVD release of Fidelity has clips and commentary from Cusack and director Frears. Frears was a fan of the book and always wanted to make it into a movie, but was afraid that all of “the good stuff” would have to be left out. It was Cusack’s idea to do the whole narration thing. That way, all the exposition that was so vital to the book was left in, delivered in this very clever, non-intrusive way to convey Rob’s angst. It’s very subtle, thanks to Cusack’s alternating manic and meandering delivery. His monologues are like the confessionals of a middle schooler, which Rob ostensibly still is. It works well with the theme of life arrest. Rob’s just a “victim of circumstance,” with circumstances he’s created. He’s boxes himself in with his own rationalizing, and gets it intimate with the audience.

Fresh-faced Hjejle is great as Laura. She’s very disarming, kinda like a Gen X Isla. Laura is oddly strong, yet vulnerable. You get the feeling that she doesn’t want to leave Rob, she just has to so to maintain her sanity. It’s tough to be in a long term relationship with someone who just doesn’t get commitment, that it’s not just about you anymore. Rob is all about “you,” meaning him. Laura, whether Rob knows it or not, keeps him grounded. She’s never shown to be the bad guy. She bails, and it’s not for wondering why.

Black and Louiso are the Laurel and Hardy in Fidelity. Dick and Barry are yin and yang. Black is delightfully toxic. His acerbic wit and classic music snob blathering is both hilarious and cringe-worthy. I think we all know someone like Barry. They are all alone in a crowded record store. If only more actors could be as charmingly hammy as Black. And he actually has a good singing voice. It’s a bit schlocky, but entertaining, not unlike Tenacious D. Isn’t that what matters?

Louiso’s Dick is so self-effacing and passive it’s like he’s hiding inside his clothes. Dick is the anti-Barry. He’s still a music snob, but he assumes the timid, quiet stance. He likes letting lesser-knowing music buffs in on obscure bands as some secret, trace element stuff. It’s along this line that gets Dick a date. To wit, Louiso and Gilbert have an honest chemistry, and their budding relationship reflects Rob’s failed ones in understated, sweet contrast.

There’s a lot of nice touches about relationships in Fidelity. It’s a gentle movie, kinda tender, despite the prickly subject matter. It’s also a guy movie, with Cusack being the spot-on, typical thirty-something man-child, awash in insecurity, facing middle age and exuding weltschmerz from every pore. Us guys get that way. Rob’s love/hate relationship with his music reflecting his love/hate relationship with his past relationships; it’s never blunt, and paired with the smart narration, the message comes across with great humor and flintiness with being preachy. It’s the whole “adding the egg” metaphor here (see the All Is Lost installment). I love the dry humor. It does a great job escalating the tension within the first two acts as it eventually tempers the third descending into sweetness without being saccharine.

To wrap it up, there’s one word to describe Fidelity: satisfying. The story is solid, the acting great, the pacing perfect and it has an intelligent, thoughtful streak running throughout. High Fidelity is probably in my top-five, desert island movies.

Now where could I hook up the DVD and the stereo on a desert island? Well, thank God for Wi-Fi.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. Go read the book, too. Check out either one first. And take off those damned headphones.


Stray Observations…

  • “She liked me. She liked me. She liked me. At least I think she did…” No one really ever graduates middle school.
  • Every scene in the store, club or apartment features at least one album I own. I don’t know whether that’s comforting or really, really sad.
  • “A Cosby sweatah!”
  • That Slits album has been bouncing all over the sets. Who wants to wager director Frears is a fan?
  • “How can someone who has no interest in music own a record store?” The very sage Jack Black. Dumbass.
  • Keen use of the Beta Band there. Yeah, I have those albums too.
  • “Do you have soul?” “That all depends…”
  • Jones says “F*ck!” better than I’ve ever heard it anywhere.
  • Rob all alone in the record store. His castle, his prison.
  • “My guts have sh*t for brains!” Hornby.
  • I do miss mixtapes. I’ve made my fair share of mix discs, but it’s just not the same.
  • “I’d never thought I’d say this, but can I go to work now?”

Next Installment…

“Who, as they sung, would take the prison’d soul and lap it in Elysium?” That’s John Milton. Who’d’ve thunk he was into Matt Damon movies?


 

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