Looking Back at 'High Fidelity,' the Rom-Com That Remade the Modern Leading Man


Whenever movie lovers riff on the most influential films in the romantic-comedy canon, the same titles tend to come up: Bringing Up Baby, Roman Holiday, The Apartment, Annie Hall, When Harry Met Sally, Jerry Maguire, et al. But there’s a more recent (and less obvious) entry that’s proven to cast just as long and important a shadow over the genre: High Fidelity, John Cusack’s immaculately scored tale of heartbreak and pop songs, which was released 15 years ago this week.

Based on Nick Hornby’s 1995 novel, High Fidelity is the semi-autobiographical story of Rob (Cusack), a London record-store owner who also happens to be an inveterate list-maker and commitment-phobe. After suffering a breakup with long-term girlfriend Laura (Iben Hjejle), Rob decides to track down his five most memorable exes; along the way, he takes breaks to describe his relationship mistakes — often directly addressing the camera — and to wax on about the musical genius of such acts as the Beta Band and Belle & Sebastian.

Appropriately, the film suffered a few of its own breakups on the way to the big screen — at one point, it was to be directed by Four Weddings and a Funeral’s Mike Newell — before ultimately ending up in the hands of star Cusack, who’d recently won acclaim for co-writing the hit Grosse Pointe Blank (his Blank collaborators, D.V. DeVincentis and Steve Pink, followed him to Fidelity). Cusack and company kept the shape and spirit of the novel, which they relocated to Chicago, and the star brought director Stephen Frears, with whom he’d worked on The Grifters.

The British filmmaker was hardly an obvious choice: He wasn’t known for comedy and didn’t initially connect with the source material, telling The Guardian that “it didn’t really chime with me; it’s not about my generation.” But Cusack lobbied Frears to sign on, and the director ultimately proved an inspired choice. It’s clear from Frears’s earlier films, which included My Beautiful Laundrette and Dangerous Liaisons, that he knew how to portray complex relationships onscreen in an authentic and nuanced way, and High Fidelity is about nothing if not relationships. It was Frears’s idea to use direct address — which was inspired by the 1966 Michael Caine classic Alfie — and the emotional nakedness that comes via sharing directly with the audience helps Fidelity dig into the insecurities and contradictions of the male psyche in a way that few of its contemporaries did.


But High Fidelity also benefited from good timing. As the film was being made, the members of the famously self-centered Generation X were coming of age, settling down, and starting families. But Rob resists, sabotaging his relationship with Laura due to his pop-culture obsessiveness, immaturity, and general self-obsession. He’s one of the first real examples of what’s become the dominant theme of the comedy genre in the 21st century: the boy who won’t grow up. The character of a man-child forced to confront maturity has been prevalent in everything from Judd Apatow comedies like Knocked Up to indies like Miranda July’s The Future and beyond, but it was Rob’s slow trudge toward maturity in High Fidelity that paved the way for all of them.

The film wasn’t just an encapsulation of an aging Gen X mindset: Its neo-“emo” musings and confessional nature also inadvertently anticipated millennial behavior, as well. Not just the film’s feels-heavy emphasis on music and pop culture, but also the raw emotion of Rob’s fourth-wall breaking — as he owns up to his failings, flaws, and mistakes — can be found in everything from no-filter Gawker blog posts to the heart-on-sleeve nature of something like Lena Dunham’s Girls (though it should be noted that Rob’s not entirely truthful even when he’s talking to the camera: self-deluded and self-deceiving, he’s playing to an audience just as much as a hit YouTuber might be).

Though High Fidelity was glowingly reviewed, the film took in just $27.3 million in U.S. theaters, although it eventually found a following on video. Yet the film’s biggest impact (aside from proving a breakout role for Jack Black, who plays Rob’s slovenly record-store sidekick) was how High Fidelity introduced — or, more accurately reintroduced —a new kind of masculine lead to the romantic-comedy genre.

Thanks largely to 1989’s Cameron Crowe cult classic Say Anything, Cusack had defined for Generation X a particular kind of idealistic, principled, sensitive alternative romantic lead, and it’s easy to see Rob in High Fidelity as an older, more introspective, more self-reflective version of Lloyd Dobler from the earlier film, one who carries his metaphorical boom box above his shoulders all the time.

As a result, High Fidelity opened the door to more emo rom-com heroes. These new leading men were a far cry from the likes of Richard Gere in Pretty Woman or Hugh Grant in Notting Hill, better at moping than at making grand romantic gestures: Think Joseph Gordon-Levitt in (500) Days Of Summer, Zach Braff in Garden State, Jason Segel in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, or even the lovelorn, decidedly Cusackian central character in the sitcom hit How I Met Your Mother.

Bringing back this kind of sensitive, emotional hero to the genre might be the film’s most lasting impact. Or perhaps it was actually something unrelated to cinema: Would the listicle culture that dominates Internet pop-culture sites exist without the film? Find out next week with our “48 GIFs That Prove That John Cusack In High Fidelity Totally Nailed Dating In Your 30s.”

Watch the trailer for ‘High Fidelity’ below: