They Said What?! is a biweekly column in which we explore the highs and lows of film criticism through history. How did critics feel about it at the time, and do we see it differently now? Chris Coffel explores.
On March 31, 2000, John Cusack broke the fourth wall as Rob Gordon, the music-obsessed narcissistic record store owner, incapable of maintaining a healthy longterm relationship. Rob is, of course, the lead character and narrator in Stephen Frears’ adaptation of Nick Hornby‘s 1995 novel, High Fidelity.
Two decades later, it’s as relevant as ever. In 2006, a musical based on the book ran on Broadway for 13 shows. Since then, regional productions have sprung up in various cities across the US, with a couple popping up in Australia and London. Ten years ago, Chicago magazine ranked High Fidelity number one of their list of the top 40 movies filmed in the Windy City. Now, the book has been adapted into a TV series on Hulu.
Does the film’s lasting significance jive with what the critics had to say 20 years ago? Let’s dig in and find out.
Adapting a beloved book is never an easy task, and it becomes all the more difficult when significant changes occur. In the case of High Fidelity, this meant moving the distinctly London story to Chicago and crafting a decidedly American romantic comedy. Desson Patrick Thomson, then known as Desson Howe, began his review in the Washington Post openly stating that he expected to hate the film, echoing the skepticism of many fans of the book. But it left him pleasantly surprised.
“High Fidelity doesn’t feel bad for one moment about not being British,” he wrote. “Frears’ adaptation, co-written by Cusack, is effortlessly and eccentrically American. And, as far as I’m concerned, this movie’s a guaranteed pleasure for anyone who ever loved pop music, owned a record collection or suffered in love. Does that leave anyone out? I don’t think so.”
Stephen Holden didn’t seem to mind the location shift, writing in his New York Times review, “Despite the change of venue, the movie remains remarkably true to the novel’s spirit.” He continued: “Even more sharply than the book, the movie evokes the turmoil of urban single life with a quirky mixture of confessional poignancy and dry, self-deflating humor.”
Of course, you can’t talk High Fidelity without talking about the music, and many critics made this a focal point in their reviews. Nathan Rabin of The A.V. Club praised the film’s musical choices saying that it “understands the psychological importance music plays in its protagonist’s life.” This is important because so often films that rely on pop music soundtracks fall into the trap of merely becoming a playlist of cliches.
High Fidelity wisely avoided such traps.
“The songs are so well chosen — never the most obvious choices, but always interesting ones — that they sometimes catch you up short,” Stephanie Zacharek wrote for Salon. She highlights this by applauding the way the film transitions from Belle & Sebastian to Katrina and the Waves in one early scene.
High Fidelity relies on prominent, scene-stealing characters that in any other movie would feel over the top. Here they strike the perfect chord and come across as genuine, something Roger Ebert made sure to note. “In its unforced, whimsical, quirky, obsessive way,” he wrote, “High Fidelity is a comedy about real people in real lives.”
The film’s stellar cast of great actors giving terrific performances deserves a lot of credit for helping the film feel so grounded. By and large, reviewers agreed. “Every single actor here rises to the occasion,” Zacharek wrote while singling out Joan Cusack, Jack Black, Iban Hjejle, and Todd Louiso.
Similarly, Holden raved about the entire cast saying, “The movie is sparked by more than half a dozen incisive performances.” He called Cusack “winning,” praising the actor for the way he found a balance between interacting with other characters on screen and talking directly to the camera.
Perhaps the most clever review came from Variety‘s Joe Leydon, who decided to lead off with his “top five reasons High Fidelity is some kind of wonderful.” The list began by calling Cusack “fearless and ferociously funny” and concluded by dubbing the film “the first great date movie of 2000.”
“Two hours of narcissism are difficult to take,” Manohla Dargis wrote in her LA Weekly review, proving that not everyone was a fan. She continued by saying, “High Fidelity wants to be hip, but it’s comically square” and declaring it to be nothing more than “Bridget Jones’s Diary for the other side.”
Dargis did manage to give the film a bit of a backhanded compliment while dragging other rom-com regulars, writing that High Fidelity is “a better romantic comedy than anything Nora Ephron or Garry Marshall will ever slough off.”
Joining Dargis in her disdain was Slate critic David Edelstein, who felt the film was lazy in its approach of taking the story from the page to the screen. He wrote that the film was never “fully dramatized” because it lacked any real narrative. “The story of a sourly self-absorbed jerk who can’t fully share himself with anyone,” Edelstein concluded, “becomes the story of a guy who never stops yammering.”
Well, you can’t impress everybody. But if I were to make a list of my top five all-time great John Cusack movies, High Fidelity would undoubtedly make the cut.