Stephen Frears’ High Fidelity (2000), based on the book of the same name by Nick Hornby, is a well established Romantic Comedy – a film from the genre’s golden age. Indeed, even if you haven’t seen the film, the narrative tropes are undoubtedly familiar. A heterosexual white male unfulfilled, lonely, successful, living in a cosmopolitan hub seeks a white heterosexual female who shares all the same attributes, though is more often characterised by her physical appearance.
High Fidelity is perhaps differentiated from its contemporaries through its attempt to deconstruct the genre. Lead character Rob Gordon’s (John Cusack) internal monologue allows for an intimate understanding of his motivations. He does not hide the fact he is selfish, sometimes sexist, afraid of, and simultaneously in search of commitment. Rob’s obnoxious obsession with music (naturally he works in a Record Shop) heightens his sense of self-importance and superiority – particularly in comparison to his hapless coworkers, Dick and Barry (played by Todd Louiso and a young Jack Black). We, the audience, are supposed to laugh as he mopes about Chicago (the said cosmopolitan hub) complaining about the inadequacy of his life. The inadequacy in this scenario is the recent end of his long term relationship with Laura (Iben Hjejle).
Rob decides to revisit his past girlfriends to understand how and why he keeps on failing. From lying about and then shaming girlfriends for their sexual encounters with him to idealising another beyond the point of recognition, it is clear very quickly where Rob has been “going wrong.” Rob does not learn this lesson as quickly. He goes about stalking, sabotaging and obsessing on Laura. We are supposed to see how his fantasy of what he believes women to be (past, present and future) is obstructing his real relationship with Laura. This would work if the women characters went beyond this fantasy themselves. They are secondary characters, one dimensional at best and plot devices at worst. Yes, this is the point. We are meant to find fault in Rob’s actions and hope for his ability to change. Unsurprisingly, Rob and Laura do reconcile, with an understanding he has learnt how to be with her despite not being, in Laura’s words, “the safest bet.”
About A Boy, another Hornby adaptation, essentially tells the same story. However, it is far more effective. There are a lot of similarities between the two films. In About A Boy, music also plays a key role, wonderfully soundtracked by Badly Drawn Boy, there is an equally arrogant lead (Hugh Grant) with a conclusion frame-worked by heterosexual romantic resolution. However, what differentiates the latter from High Fidelity is its central relationship between a selfish middle-aged man and a far less pretentious young boy named Marcus (Nicholas Hoult).
We are supposed to believe, in High Fidelity, that through revisiting his past relationships (all terrible breakups generally felt to be the fault of the woman), Rob Gordon has experienced some character development and is at last ready to conform to heteronormative expectations. Perhaps, we are meant to question Rob’s ability to do this but then again what was the point of investing time into the film? Are we meant to believe men are incapable of change or that heterosexual love is, above all else, the secret to happiness?
In About A Boy, Hugh Grant’s character essentially charts the same narrative progress. Grant’s character Nick is as self-involved, manipulative and commitment-shy as Rob. A scene of particular note is Nick pretending to be a single father in order to pursue romantic relationships with single mothers (i.e. women who are less likely to ask him to commit). Yes, this awful behaviour and exemplative of women’s position as the sexual object. However, Nick also comes to understand this as a terrible way to treat people. It is not through an internalised journey of self-discovery but an unlikely kinship with the young offbeat Marcus and his well-meaning but chaotic mother, Fiona (Toni Collette). As a side note, the complexity of Fiona in comparison to Laura demonstrates a richer characterisation. A lesser film would have positioned Nick and Fiona as romantic partners, About A Boy does not. The potential queer readings of this grouping would be an interesting route of dissection but in a broader sense, there is more meaning to the relationships and greater development of characters in About A Boy compared to High Fidelity.
This is not due to acting performances (strong throughout both), or even direction. The crux of the issue is that in the latter the premise is men and women are different, men can’t commit, women only want commitment and it is only in this monogamy we find happiness. This is counterproductive in conversations around sex and relationships.
It is hard to gain an understanding of purpose in High Fidelity other than to reiterate outdated notions of love, dating and the continuation of the gender binary. About A Boy tells the same story but the focus is put on the emotional fulfilment of the individual as part of a collective (“no man is an island”) as opposed to an absence felt without romantic love. As Marcus says, “couples aren’t the future, you need back up.”
by Catherine McNaughton
Catherine McNaughton is currently studying at the University of Manchester. Inspired by feminism and Debbie Harry. Her favourite films include Amelie, Before Sunset and Moonlight. You can find her on twitter: @__CatherineMac
Categories: Feminist Criticism