‘High Fidelity’ Created a Hero for a Generation of Sociopathic “Nice Guys”
John Cusack’s Rob Gordon character became a cult hero among hopeless romantic music fanboys, but he wasn’t meant to be likable. In fact, he was a huge asshole.
It was recently reported that Disney is working on a female-led TV series modeled after High Fidelity, the 2000 film based on the Nick Hornby novel of the same name. And while female reboots of male-led movies like Ghostbusters have fared well with audiences, in the case of High Fidelity, whose plot hangs entirely on the lead character’s sense of male entitlement, it feels like a particularly odd fit.
High Fidelity introduced the world to Rob Gordon, a sad-sack music obsessive who is perpetually mid-break-up. To the sorts of “nice guys” who grew up valuing pop culture knowledge over athletic ability, the character became something of a cult hero. After all, from the perspective of guys who still live at home, Rob had an enviable lifestyle: he worked the dream job of owning his own record store, he was by default the least socially awkward member of his social circle which included Jack Black and Todd Louiso, and, most impressive to romantically inept music fanboys, he somehow managed to routinely bed women exceedingly hotter than himself. Gordon was either the coolest nerd or the nerdiest cool guy. But, despite having a lifestyle music geeks could aspire to, Rob Gordon was not a character to be admired. Rob Gordon was, in fact, a terrible human—a sociopathic womanizer, a stalker ex, and a shitty boyfriend.
This was something that was understood by Hornby, but often goes over the heads of the movie’s fans. There’s a bit of Rob’s flawed personality that gets lost in translation from the book’s depiction to the one on screen, partly the result of the character being played by John Cusack and the fact that, well, the guy is just so damned likeable. Every time he flashes his sad, puppy dog eyes, it produces an instant flashback to his hopeless romantic teenage roles of the 1980s. Cusack is so inherently charming that he lends Gordon more sympathy than the character deserves. But over almost two hours, High Fidelity repeatedly tries to make clear to the audience what an asshole Rob is, with him even admitting at one point: “Did I say and do these things? Yes. I am a fucking asshole.”
High Fidelity opens with Rob listening to "You're Gonna Miss Me" by The 13th Floor Elevators as his live-in girlfriend, Laura, is moving out of their apartment. To get over this break-up, Rob decides to revisit a few of his exes for the purpose of deflecting any blame for the demise of his relationships. (In fairness, it was Bruce Springsteen’s idea, and it’s hard to argue with a cameo from The Boss.) The first half of the movie is shuffled along by Rob ranking his previous girlfriends in order of heartbreak, a numerical game he plays with his record store buddies about his favorite albums. Here is a man who collects women like records and catalogs them by preference, the first in a long series of clues that Rob is maybe not a character to be idolized.
Rob first meets up with Number Two on the list, his high school girlfriend, Penny, whom he dumped because she repeatedly denied him whenever he tried to feel her up. (“I wasn’t interested in Penny’s nice qualities, just her breasts, and therefore she was no good to me,” was his exact line.) Over a catch-up dinner where Rob asks Penny why she wouldn’t put out, she admits to him that she was so heartbroken over getting dumped that she let her next boyfriend essentially rape her and she consequently had an aversion to sex that lasted throughout college, and then storms out of the restaurant crying. Rob’s reaction to this revelation is basically: What a relief! Wow, I should meet up with more of my exes to get closure for the wake of misery I caused.
The next ex on his list confides in him that she’s been having a rough time lately, and has been experimenting with various medications to help. After walking her home, Gordon breaks the fourth wall and tells the audience, “I could have wound up having sex back there. What better way to exorcise rejection demons than to screw the person who rejected you, right?” It takes a special kind of sociopath to pat himself on the back for not taking advantage of an emotionally unstable woman for the purpose of revenge.
As for his current breakup, Rob is devastated to learn that Laura has been seeing a former neighbor named Ian Raymond (brilliantly played by Tim Robbins), but is relieved to find out that the two haven’t had sex “yet.” Rob celebrates this new information by raising his fists triumphantly like a boxer to Queen’s “We Are the Champions” and says, “I feel so much better, in fact, that I go straight out and sleep with Marie de Salle,” a musician played by Lisa Bonet. But his post-sex high is dashed shortly after when Laura tells him she finally had sex with Ian, at which point Rob falls into a fit of depression, even though he was having sex with another woman mere hours ago. Rob lost this game of sexual chess and begins harassing Laura and Ian.
Rob stands at a payphone in the rain outside Ian’s apartment with a stack of quarters, repeatedly dialing the house phone. This serves as a callback to Cusack’s iconic romantic gesture from Say Anything, when he stood outside a girlfriend’s window with a boombox, blasting Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes.” This might have passed as cute for a lovesick teenager, but for a man in his 30s, it’s indicative of an emotionally stunted lover and the reason restraining orders exist. There’s also a flashback scene in High Fidelity where Rob stands outside a college ex’s window in the rain and shouts a line that brilliantly encapsulates his stunning lack of self-awareness: “You fucking bitch! Let’s work it out!”
Ian Raymond is such a scummy character, a patchouli oil-soaked hippie with a horrendous ponytail, that the juxtaposition of the two male suitors leads the audience to root for Rob. But, much like Michael Douglas’ character killing a racist shopowner in Falling Down did not make him the hero of that story as many people falsely believe, Rob Gordon having a better record collection and fewer pinky rings than Ian Raymond does not necessarily make him the better choice for Laura. This is the “nice guy” myth that deludes men into believing that the guy who doesn’t get the girl must by default be the one who deserves her most. It’s the same mentality that pitted geeks against jocks in Revenge of the Nerds and painted the nerds as the good guys, and not a bunch of sexual predators who secretly filmed a house full of sorority women in the shower.
All of these examples of Rob’s possessive behavior appear to be part of a redemption arc for his character, one that will eventually render him a changed man deserving of Laura’s love. But the film’s greatest fault is that it bungles the lesson he’s supposed to learn. While Laura does take Rob back, he never really does anything to earn her. “I’m too tired not to be with you,” she eventually concedes. So, essentially, Rob’s persistent harassing and emotional belittling left her so beaten down that she was too tired to fight him off anymore and just settled. What could have been some tough love for men about seeking emotional maturity instead promoted the notion that harassment works. The greatest leap of maturity Rob is able to make by the film’s end is that he catches himself crushing on a manic pixie music reporter and forces himself to begrudgingly accept fidelity to Laura, a woman who is still devoted to him despite all of the aforementioned glaring personality defects.
It’s hard to say exactly how much High Fidelity directly influenced the music made by the men who grew up watching it. But it’s certainly traceable through pop punk and emo, where Cusack’s work in the 80s had already been a celebrated presence. The Bouncing Souls devoted a song to quoting his movies in 1994. Lanemeyer, the New Jersey pop punk band which included The Gaslight Anthem’s Brian Fallon, named their band after his character in 1985’s Better Off Dead and referenced the movie heavily on their debut EP. And Say Anything’s Max Bemis once admitted that he also named his band after the 1989 movie because of his identification with Cusack’s character.
In the years following High Fidelity’s release, the music coming from those male-dominated underground genres started seeing more commercial success. At the same time, its lyrics, which had always leaned towards being heart-on-sleeve and mawkish, took a more dramatically possessive turn, sometimes with violent imagery. In 2002, Taking Back Sunday famously penned the self-harm anthem, “You’re So Last Summer,” which included the lyric, “You could slit my throat and with my one last gasping breath I'd apologize for bleeding on your shirt.” Brand New had a doozy in 2003 with "It's cold as a tomb and it's dark in your room / When I sneak to your bed to pour salt in your wounds.” And then of course there was the entirety of the Drive-Thru Records catalog. Rabid, sometimes murderous jealousy became a staple of commercial emo in the early 2000s and didn’t seem to have much artistic separation from the ids of its creators. And now, years later, we’re still learning that—surprise, surprise—many of these male songwriters were not the romantic catches they believed themselves to be.
But to borrow a quote from Rob Gordon: Was male music miserable because it watched High Fidelity or was High Fidelity miserable because it listened to male music? Who can say. But one thing the Rob Gordon character effectively did was put a deceptively charming face on the image of romantically victimized record store guys. The shot of Rob sitting on the floor of his Chicago apartment among stacks of records came to embody the lovelorn, woe-as-me persona adopted by straight male music fans for years to come.
Perhaps Disney’s High Fidelity series will merely cull from the loose idea of a female record store owner and go off in its own direction. But maybe it will take the personality faults of the film’s male lead and flip them on their head, showing the emotional toll they take on women. Anything to prevent another generation of Rob Gordons.
Dan Ozzi is on Twitter.
This article originally appeared on Noisey US.