The Forgotten Brilliance of ‘High Fidelity’ (2000)

Unlikeable film characters are far from seldom. Frequently the male lead, these characters are known to be oblivious and often portray toxic masculinity. They are often eminently unlucky with love and fail to understand why. Think about When Harry Met Sally (1989) or Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994). Even in the sphere of television shows, Ted Mosby’s entire personality in How I Met Your Mother is enduring failing relationships while never truly grasping the cause to his loneliness. But while these characters are flawed and sometimes disreputable, there is an asset to them that frames them as likeable and fosters a feeling of sympathy. There have come few times, however, when this trope is replaced with a character who is not only flawed and disreputable, but also incredibly contemptible. 

Over 20 years has passed since Stephen Frears adaptation of Nick Hornby’s critically acclaimed novel, and yet, there still isn’t a more dreadful romantic comedy lead than that of High Fidelity (2000). The film, released at the start of the millennium, centers around Rob Gordan (John Cusack), who believes in order to salvage his most recent breakup he must revisit the five relationships that hurt the most and use them as a source of the answer. As a music lover and record store owner, Rob gravitates towards making different lists of the Top Best Tracks or Top Best Albums (makes you think maybe music is his one true love and he should simply give up on relationships). Naturally, Rob decides to make a Top Five Worst Breakups list, deducing the five relationships that had the most impact on him. And the only way to understand why these relationships failed? Well, according to Rob, he must go directly to each girlfriend and question them about what went wrong. 

Unfortunately, there is no better way to describe Rob other than an oblivious man-child. Habitually breaking the fourth wall, he often expects everyone other than himself to answer his questions, while never cognizant of his own mistakes. His most recent girlfriend Laura (Iben Hjejle) breaks up with Rob specifically due to his infidelity and lack of direction. This choice ends up foreshadowing the remainder of the film, since Rob evidently thinks the only way to understand his trouble with love is to ask every other girl he has hurt or gaslighted. 

A men looks up from his record collection, which completely surrounds him.
Image Courtesy of Touchstone Pictures

In each of his past relationships, Rob neither understands the concept of consent nor fails to belittle his partners. He legitimately decided to break up with girlfriend number two on his list, Penny (Joelle Carter), because she wouldn’t let him feel her up. When they reunite after last seeing each other in high school, he questions their relationship and why she chose to lose her virginity to her next boyfriend instead of him. Penny clearly describes how Rob hurt her to such lengths, she was subsequently raped by her next boyfriend because she was afraid of rejecting another man again, leaving her scarred and unable to be intimate with anyone in college. What was Rob’s reaction to this? A sense of consolation knowing she wasn’t ready and there was nothing “wrong” with him. And yet, completely missing the point that he contributed to her traumatization with intimacy. 

It’s evident that Rob follows this path of only understanding other people’s feelings in order to feel secured with himself. There isn’t one moment in the film where Rob recognizes the other person’s emotions and attempts to help them without his own personal gain. While the breaking of the fourth wall is intended to make his character more relatable and affable, his arrogance and disgrace never gives the viewer this chance.

Four men exchange glances with one another in a record store.
Image Courtesy of Touchstone Productions/Melissa Moseley

But it’s important to note that an unappealing and unlikeable character does not equate to an unwatchable film. This form of direction actually leads to an opposite reaction, making Rob’s personality shape the brilliance of the film. The world of cinema is filled with stories centering main characters with a flawed, but overall righteous personality. The majority of motion pictures include an antagonist, who exists solely to make the main character and protagonist be seen as even more likable. That doesn’t hold true in the case of High Fidelity. And yes, more recent films like The Social Network (2010) and The Spectacular Now (2013) have identified this trope to be very telling and thus, utilized it. But in 2000, with the height of romantic comedies and action films filled with heroes and villains, the concept of a jerk playing the main character was not as acceptable. If this film were released in today’s cinematic atmosphere, but set in the same time stamp with the same impeccable soundtrack, Rob (who would be played by Miles Teller or Penn Badgley) would garner much more appreciation and applaud, not for his personality, but for what his personality provokes.

The storylines in the majority of romantic comedies present the male lead with flaws and issues for a simple reason that is principal in accomplishing a romantic ending: for the female lead to act as a lesson, helping the man realize he’s in love with her and will become a better person because of her. A tad misogynistic, wouldn’t you say? When people describe films as ‘ahead of their time’, High Fidelity should be a front runner for this reason. Instead of a Rob who is presented as respectable and a female lead making him into a better person, he is an awful human who expects women to mend him. Spoiler alert: no one can. And when Laura takes him back after Rob’s continued harassment and begging, he still feels unsure of being faithful to her. He doesn’t learn any lessons from her or his other girlfriends, leading no woman responsible for developing him into a ‘better person’. Because, as this film shows, women are not pawns to men. The fact of the matter is that there are some men in this world who are utterly awful, and that is their obstacle to face. And maybe a therapist would help.

The unconventionality of this romantic comedy is what makes it so stirring to watch and simple to revolve on afterwards. Film criticism is valid in all forms, and it’s evident that 2000 was not yet ready for a film like this. But the theme of indie, detached main characters who are a complete mess has begun to gain traction, as has the diversification of roles female and male characters play in romantic films. As a film in the early 2000’s epoch with 2020 societal standards, High Fidelity is worth the watch and reconsideration.