TV review: High Fidelity is no longer a sad-dude manifesto

The 2000s movie was a touchstone for softboys and emo teens, but Hulu's TV reboot, starring Zoe Kravitz, puts a welcome new twist on the same old song


HIGH FIDELITY (Sara Kucserka). Now streaming on Crave. Rating: NNNN


By pretty much every conceivable measure, High Fidelity was pretty low in the “ripe for a reboot in 2020” rankings.

The 2000 film, an adaptation of a Nick Hornby novel, revolved around Rob (John Cusack), a sad-sack record store owner utterly consumed with his past breakups, but completely oblivious to his role in them.

In the two decades since the movie’s release, the role of the record store as cultural arbiter has faded, as has the trope of the holier-than-thou record store clerk. And the public’s patience for self-absorbed white-dude protagonists – like Rob, who “created a hero for a generation of sociopathic ‘nice guys’,” as Vice’s Dan Ozzi wrote – has waned in tandem.

(Granted, the book and film expect the audience to piece together what a jerk Rob actually is. Then again, lots of people still think Humbert Humbert is a hero, too.)

But there is a flipside (a side B, if you will) to the source material for me, which is that as a relentlessly intense high schooler who hadn’t sorted out the difference between owning a lot of records and having a personality, I loved – loved – High Fidelity.

How much? While writing this review, a buried memory popped back into my mind of spending a Sunday painstakingly collaging Rob’s lament “Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable, or was I miserable because I listened to pop music?” onto the back of my Grade 12 Writers’ Craft journal.

Of course, I couldn’t fully identify with Rob’s distinctly adult issues – unwanted pregnancy, infidelity, a failed DJ career – as a teenager. I also didn’t understand all of his decidedly Gen X references, though I did hustle myself dutifully over to LimeWire for Stiff Little Fingers and Beta Band tracks without giving much thought to the ethical dilemma of piracy. 

I did do a lot of moping over (real or imagined) romantic slights in the rain while listening to Bob Dylan, so there was at least some overlap.

In hindsight, I spent a lot of time identifying with these sorts of cork-sniffing, alpha-nerd, proto-softboy characters – your Rob Flemings/Gordons, your Scott Pilgrims – in the early aughts, however misguided an instinct it was. 

Maybe it was the specificity of our shared hobbies. More likely, it was that so many female characters in the media I was consuming either had their shit completely together, acting as a unflinchingly competent, motivating foil to the male lead – or they were broken in ethereal, entrancing ways that still made them fascinating (read: attractive) to men.

I wanted a reflection, I think, of how messy and ugly and terminally outcast by the opposite sex I felt. (Or the same sex – I’m not saying the latent queerness didn’t play a part in my teenage self-loathing and/or weird femininity hangups.) But this was the era before Lady Bird and Broad City, and so, I made do with what I had.

Mercifully, I outgrew much of this with time, except maybe for the rain-and-Dylan thing meanwhile, Rob Gordon’s victim complex, frozen in time, aged like milk.

Which is why I approached the rebooted High Fidelity, a 10-episode series produced by Hulu (and added just after its U.S. debut to Crave) with high-school-reunion levels of both excitement and trepidation.

The team behind the show were clearly aware of how poorly hindsight has treated the source material – both in the datedness of its endless pop references and the myopia of its core point of view. Simply changing the main character to a queer woman of colour would have been a poor Band-Aid for the original script’s issues – but a number of smart shifts and a much-grander scope (at 10 40-minute episodes) do the real heavy lifting.

Zoe Kravitz (whose mom Lisa Bonet, it must be noted, starred in the original as Marie de Salle, of “I go right out and sleep with Marie de Salle” fame) takes up Cusack’s flannel mantle, remaking Rob – aka Robyn – as a brooding, escapist, self-destructive millennial dirtbag. She low-key ignores her friends, flip-flops constantly on the sweet Midwestern dude she’s casually dating (Jake Lacy, the latest in a long line of Jake Lacy roles), and pines desperately for her ex, while stopping herself just short of totally blowing up his new life.

In short, the new Rob is about as solid a role model as the old one. But she’s, by turns, massively frustrating and discomfitingly relatable, dispensing with Rob’s moping for a chin-jutting, dead-eyed stoicism. She wears a lot of holey T-shirts and eats Indian takeout in the bath while dodging her mom’s phone calls. She sits through an hour of top-tier mansplaining from some rich dude and seriously toys with making off with his stockpile of rare records as revenge.

Teen me, it’s safe to say, would have loved her.

Rob still owns a record shop, working the till with Simon – a composite character of one of the original “top five” exes and mousy record store clerk Dick, in one of the series’ smartest streamlining edits – who broke up with Rob after coming out. (The series reinstates, and expands on, the scant queer content in the Hornby novel, which was still somehow too much for 2000s Hollywood.)

Rounding out the dream team is Cherise, who describes herself as “Aretha meets Ann Wilson” in an OTT want ad for other aspiring musicians. The banter between the record store jockeys is a big part of what made the original so charming, and the reboot’s dialogue is still crackling and sharp while maintaining an easy rhythm. The script borrows beats from the source material, updating scenes in ways that feel logical for modern music culture. Instead of haranguing a customer for buying “I Just Called To Say I Love You” because it’s sappy, they’re now holding a mini-referendum on whether or not to sell someone a Michael Jackson record on ethical grounds.

There is, of course, a recent ex who’s turned Rob’s life upside down (Kingsley Ben-Adir). He’s moved on to a new love – but instead of Tim Robbins’s endlessly smug hippie, she’s just a normal-seeming girl gamely trying to work around Rob’s presence in her new fiancé’s life.

When Rob decides to track down her all-time top five (with a little help from a mystical celebrity – not Bruce Springsteen, but it’s still a pretty good cameo) they’re now cocky stand-up comedians and blue-checkmarked influencers. (“She’s right there on Instagram,” Rob marvels, in what would be the correct 2020 update to the original line.)

Set pieces and beloved quotes resurface from the original to keep the old crowd happy – the ceaseless Top Five lists, the punk-ass teen shoplifters, nostalgia-baiting tracks like Dry The Rain and I Believe (When I Fall In Love With You It Will Be Forever). Joan Cusack’s immortal “Hey Rob, you fucking asshole!” is now delivered with appropriate shock and revulsion by Toronto’s own Rainbow Sun Francks, playing Rob’s brother in the middle of his own third-life crisis.

It sometimes can feel like slavish fan service. But more often than not, the references land – and bring a little thrill of recognition with them.

Meanwhile, there’s plenty of new ground to tread. The extended length of the show lets them take the plot to new territory, like an aching, exquisite standalone episode starring Simon, or another featuring Parker Posey as a batty modern artist. And previously one-note characters get a human, fleshed-out treatment the best example is Da’Vine Joy Randolph’s Cherise, whose bluster hides very real ambition and vulnerability.

But the biggest, most important difference isn’t the gender-swapped protagonist, or the more diverse cast it’s that Kravitz’s Rob doesn’t get the easy out this time around.

The original’s biggest flaw may be that Cusack’s character, after an hour and a half of pouting, mild stalking and negligible character development, gets back together with his lost love, mostly thanks to timing and inertia. But in the reboot, the showrunners save Rob’s “I am a fucking asshole” moment of clarity for late in the show’s run, after she looks to have thoroughly obliterated both sides of a season-long love triangle.

The show offers her only tiny flickers of redemption – and they’re not about her getting back in her love interests’ good graces or scoring enough Nice Guy/Girl points to win them back so much as learning painful, necessary lessons on becoming a half-decent person. A recent comparison might be Bojack Horseman – but with way lower stakes, way more William Onyeabor, and about the same amount of bad 80s sweaters.

In short, it’s the kind of narrative a messy, complicated adult can see themselves in.

@nataliamanzocco

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