A Rom-Com Memoir of the 2000s
Married couples tend to enjoy the comedic sufferings of the unattached. My wife and I laughed a lot at Bridget, which was refreshingly forward for its time. Jones may be more Austen than Apatow in conception, but she smoked, drank, and was into anal sex. Claudia called her "the clumsy girl," and thought her bettering herself to be worthy of a man peculiar. As a prideful Roman, Claudia assumed that any man would be lucky to be with her.
There was one romantic comedy of that era that I made sure to see on my own. Having guiltily devoured the Nick Hornby book that it was based on, I knew High Fidelity would've likely given my wife fuel for a marital flare-up. It exposed a classic male tendency that a lifetime of rom-com watching had heightened in me: my weakness for falling too much in love with love, while being less inclined to go its distance.
Romantic comedies are strong on the chase and the conquest. How to sustain and maintain a relationship? Not so much. John Cusack's performance in Hi-Fi as record shop proprietor Rob Gordon toppled his iconic image of Say Anything's Lloyd Dobler, that goddamn blaster hoisted high above his head. Though Rob had initially won his lady Laura (Iben Hjejle) with a mix tape, the movie starts with her walking out on his sorry ass, having realized Rob's more into music than into learning how to make things last.
Hi-Fi is an affectionately knowing portrait of a serial monogamist. In between attempts to browbeat Laura into coming back, Rob tries to get a grip by revisiting his Top Five Most Memorable Break-Ups, but fails to blame himself. Hanging out at Championship Vinyl with his hired hands, meek geek Dick (Todd Louiso) and Barry the macho id-monster (Jack Black), Rob rails at the women who feed and destroy his fantasies. Hearing that Laura's seeing someone, his pain peaks. "I used to dream I'd be surrounded by exotic women's underwear forever and ever," Rob says. "Now I know they just save their best pairs for the nights they know they're gonna sleep with somebody."
Somebody is obnoxious Ian, a rock-Fabio nightmare of a rival (the grossly longhaired Tim Robbins). Rob imagines himself and his boys beating Ian to a bloody pulp on the record store floor, but this never actually happens. Instead, a more insidious male wish fulfillment fantasy is enacted, as Laura returns of her own volition, doing most of the hard work for Rob. Rob, having gotten to shtup a sexy singer-songwriter in their time apart, no strings attached, comprehends how much he loves Laura, owns up to his role in their break-up, and apologizes. He even pitches a marriage proposal, because he's sick of having to "think about this love stuff" all the time. "That's the most romantic thing I've ever heard," Laura deadpans, but Rob redeems it. "I'm tired of the fantasy," he tells her, "but I don't ever seem to get tired of you." And boy gets girl back in the end.
As with Bridget, Hi-Fi had it both ways. Uncharacteristically dark for a rom-com in depicting how fearfully hostile to monogamous maturity a man can be, it let Rob off the hook for his bad behavior. Sending up its too-hip Vinyl trio as smug guardians of rock'n'roll cool, the film both ridiculed and embraced the male argument for non-commitment. It portrayed in its nascent form the boy-man who would dominate the genre in a few years to come, and the grown-up enabler of a woman he'd be paired with.
Even now I have too much to say about this movie, I can hear my inner Rob Gordon clamoring to show off his infinite useless opinionating on it (e.g. Using Love's cover of the Bacharach-David classic "My Little Red Book" to play over the closing titles was a good get, but the Manfred Mann version is clearly superior), and given that the whole point of its story is the need for guys to grow up, for chrissake, it's embarrassing to find its eternally adolescent culture-hoarder spirit still alive in me.
Back then, I emerged from seeing High Fidelity thinking I'd gotten past the worst of all that, hadn't I? I'd put away my teen fantasies and made the big commitment. But wearing my rose-colored rom-com glasses, I had put more energy into winning Claudia than into truly understanding what I'd won. In time, we saw that ours had become less a heavenly match than an uneasy compromise between opposing temperaments. Like Rob, I was soon waging a daily battle between fantasy and reality.
For example, the last days of our purest happiness came in a late summer vacation at a nudist spa in Corsica - which sounds exotically titillating, till you see the jiggling man-breasts and distended belly of your elderly French pensioner neighbor, his udder-sized testicles swaying in the breeze. But it was paradisiacal: a bungalow, white beach, amazingly blue sky, naked dips in the deliciously frigid ocean followed by formidable cheese and wine... and terrible fights that turned the beauty useless. Which led to sweet, sad makeup sex. The train ride back along the glorious Riviera was a romantic topper, but it ended abruptly when we checked into our hotel in Nice and the receptionist, seeing I was an American, told me, "Something terrible has happened."
On the TV set across the lobby, where a group of horrified guests were gathered, the second of the two towers was still standing.
[To be continued]