A Look Back: High Fidelity

Some novelists, as inspiring as they are, apparently have but one story only to tell – although by the time they are middle-aged and well-entrenched in their careers, they’ve become pretty good at giving their audience what they expect. When British novelist, Nick Hornby, first started writing, I assumed his niche was going to be young male narrators who need a jumpstart to become adults, but he moved on and even penned the book “Brooklyn,” which was made into a movie last year, about a young immigrant who becomes significantly less homesick after she meets a cute guy. His two early books, however, feature a similar character – in “About a Boy,” a twentysomething pretends to have a young son so he can date attractive single moms, and in “High Fidelity,” starring John Cusack in the movie version, a twentysomething tries to figure out how to sustain a romantic relationship.

It’s been asked – “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?” but it’s Hornby who, in the guise of “High Fidelity’s” protagonist, Rob Gordon, poses the question, “What came first, the music or the misery?…Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to pop music?” Like the first, I think that’s ultimately unanswerable, but it’s worth chewing over. At the beginning of the movie (the setting is changed from England to the US), John is certainly miserable both because he’s broken up with his girlfriend (Iben Hjejle) and because he works at a not-too-popular record store, which is not exactly a fast track career. In addition, his co-workers (a term here used loosely) are Jack Black and Todd Louiso, who aren’t the most scintillating company – especially when the former insists on ejecting a “sad bastard” song by Belle and Sebastian and substituting “Walking on Sunshine” shortly after John’s breakup. (The duo were originally hired to work part-time but started coming in more, and John doesn’t have the heart to correct the situation.) The upside is that they share John’s passion for incorporating various events in his life into Top X Lists. In fact, he treats the viewers to a review of his Top Five Worst Breakups, including one from when he was twelve that only lasted a few weeks. Even back then, the opposite sex was tough to figure out.

John also gets back in touch with an ex-girlfriend who invites him to a dinner party with her friends, all of whom are better at being grownups than he is. He additionally has the chance to live one of his fantasies – that he’ll date a singer/songwriter (Lisa Bonet) hoping maybe she’ll include a private joke of theirs in the liner notes of her next album. Meanwhile Iben dates Tim Robbins, who is kind of a twat; while Todd also gets a girl, and Jack starts his own band. Eventually, there is the sort of third act tragedy that happens in these movies solely to give the protagonist a mental kick and bring the destined couple back together. As a sign of his newfound maturity, John prepares a mix tape filled with – gasp – stuff that Iben will probably like, as opposed to just him. The movie does an excellent job of bringing the book to the big screen – even with the change in setting, and as Roger Ebert noted in his review, all the characters are recognizable – and mostly sympathetic even with their quirks.

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A Look Back: About A Boy

“You will end up childless and alone,” warns one of the main character’s friends in “About A Boy.” “With fingers crossed, yeah,” the unrepentant Will (Hugh Grant) replies, and when his friends ask him to be the godfather of their new child because they believe he has “hidden depths,” counters that no, he really is as shallow as he appears. Based on the novel by the same name by Nick Hornby (but not, like “High Fidelity,” transported from England to the US), the DVD cover features the other main character (Nicholas Hoult) peering up through a winter hat, similar to photos used for “”The Blair Witch Project” when it was released. Unlike “The Blair Witch Project,” however, “About A Boy,” is about a scarier subject than going camping and meeting up with the paranormal – adulthood and the groping path many of us take toward it.

Hugh Grant plays a single, independently wealthy British man in the mid-nineties (the title is a play on the Nirvana song “About A Girl”), who lives off the royalties of a Christmas novelty song his dad wrote (even though he’s deeply embarrassed about it). Having plenty of time on his hands, Hugh decides he wants to date single moms so he joins a support group for them specifically while pretending to have a young son. This is how he winds up meeting Marcus (Nicholas Hoult), the eccentric son of hippie-ish Toni Collette, who is a single mom but not Hugh’s type at all. However, he winds up involved her problems when Nicholas latches onto him (he’s a “cool” adult) and thinks that he and Toni would make a great match. Nicholas has problems of his own, as he’s being bullied at his new school, and when he meets a girl his age he likes, seeks Hugh’s help with both issues. Eventually, Nicholas figures out the truth, but by then, Hugh is entwined, despite himself, in their lives, and even though he considers his life “not an ensemble show,” he begins to take some steps out of his delayed adolescence.

“About A Boy,” features many upbeat subjects, such as a suicide and the death of a duck, but there’s plenty of black humor. The plot sticks closely to the book, but takes quite a twist in the third act, perhaps because it’s supposed to be set more in the present than 1994. Instead of the death of Kurt Cobain, which winds up bringing all the characters together, it’s “Killing Me Softly,” performed at a school talent show that does, perhaps an odd substitution, but in a way, adolescence is one long experience of that, and getting out of it alive requires as Nicholas notes, more than just two people in your corner. Even if one of them is a bit of a liar.