Film: Until the Real Thing Comes Along

I’m vacating this space for the rest of the year—I have a book to finish— and the prospect of not seeing any movies (well, many movies) for the next few months has put me in a reflective frame of mind. Not that I spend much time reflecting on the movies I’ve reviewed for Crisis in the past two years. Most of them cross my mind only in moments of despair or when I feel the need to offer up a little suffering, at which times I replay the climax of Stepmom in my head.

So why bother? For those of you just now joining us, allow me to quote myself: film is the fever chart of post-modern American culture. Virtually without exception, Hollywood carefully tailors its output to appeal to the largest possible number of viewers. Sometimes wishful thinking gets in the way, and we are treated instead to a stiff dose of liberal agitprop, but such earnest fare tends to sink without a trace. The movies that stay afloat longest are the ones that tell us what we want to hear about ourselves.

Where the Money Is is an unexpected case in point—unexpected because you’d think it would have done better at the box office. It’s short, sweet, neatly crafted, and fetchingly acted by Paul Newman, who keeps getting better as he gets older, and Linda Fiorentino, the naughty star of The Last Seduction, who in a just world would be very, very famous. The plot is obvious but charming: an aging bank robber fakes a stroke to get transferred out of prison and into a nursing home, where he finds himself in the care of a nurse who is tired of her drab, smalltown life and longs for a change. Nothing too terribly challenging there, and the ending is predictably happy, but few bothered to see it.

What went wrong? Here’s my guess: Americans are desperately afraid of death, so the last thing they want to see is a 76-year-old ex-superstar pretending to be semicomatose. Never mind that the old gent turns out to be as fast on his feet as ever. Baby boomers just don’t want to think about nursing homes at all. Period. End of story.

Serious movies tell a different kind of story. All good art is truthful: even at its most fantastic, it must appeal to our inner sense of verisimilitude. Alas, most people don’t go to movies to see the truth. They want to be reassured, not challenged. This isn’t to say that reassuring films cannot be artful—to be a Christian is to believe in happy endings—but nothing is easy in the modern world, a sorrowful fact that serious art, being true, cannot help but reflect.

I have reviewed a dozen films for Crisis that I thought good enough to see more than twice: The Apostle, The Dreamlife of Angels, Election, Guinevere, The Last Days of Disco, Magnolia, Next Stop Wonderland, Out of Sight, TC, The Sixth Sense, Three Kings, and Topsy-Turvy. (I also very much liked two movies that I didn’t write about: The Limey and Being John Malkovich.) Some were more serious than others, but all had something worthwhile to say about modern life and said it intelligently and artfully. Several portrayed the spiritual life—sometimes explicitly, more often obliquely. Most were independent, foreign, or small-budget studio movies, and most were well-reviewed, suggesting that you can’t fool all critics all of the time. Only one, The Sixth Sense, was a full-scale hit.

The most interesting thing these films had in common is that though a few portrayed romantic love, only one was a conventional boy-meets-girl love story of the sort that makes Hollywood go round. It isn’t that I think the subject has been permanently exhausted: Next Stop Wonderland served as a welcome reminder that you can still tell the old, old story with freshness and zest. But I was a bit taken aback by the inability of contemporary filmmakers to do much with it, at least during my watch. Hence, I was pleasantly surprised by Stephen Frears’s High Fidelity, a serious film about modern love that is deftly disguised as a Hollywood-type romance.

The good news starts with John Cusack, who has a habit of picking good scripts, some of which he has co-written; he is one of the four screenwriters credited with adapting Nick Hornby’s best-selling novel, all of whom deserve praise for having turned a glib piece of witty Brit fluff into a highly effective script. Cusack also gives a dead-on performance as Rob, the garrulous, painfully self-conscious owner of a Chicago record store, who finds himself teetering awkwardly between prolonged adolescence and long-overdue adulthood; I don’t know how much he actually had to do with the script, but he plays it as if he’d written every word.

Forgive me for resorting to the two most odious cant words of our time, but there’s no getting around it: High Fidelity is about “relationships” and “commitment.” Specifically, Rob is in a relationship with Laura (Iben Hjejle), who breaks up with him because he is unwilling to commit to her. Stunned by her defection, he systematically revisits the various women with whom he has previously been involved—all of whom, we learn, took the initiative in breaking up with him—and also has a one-night stand with a sexy rock singer (Lisa Bonet). In due course, he realizes that to reap the long-term benefits of true love he has to give up the short-term excitements of serial courtship and finally decides to commit not only to Laura but to adulthood itself.

What is striking about High Fidelity is that it neither romanticizes nor prettifies Rob’s dilemma. Laura is far from the perfect woman (especially as played by the strangely cool Hjejle), and his decision to settle down with her is made with reluctance and tinged with melancholy, even though we are clearly meant to feel that he is doing the right thing. At the same time, we are not allowed to harbor any illusions about the supposed joys of dating: I can’t think of another movie that so vividly portrays the horrors of serial monogamy from a male point of view.

All this is quite bracingly adult stuff, so much so that even though High Fidelity looks and sounds totally contemporary—the dialogue is as hip as a Liz Phair lyric—it put me in mind of something V.S. Pritchett once wrote about Sir Walter Scott:

He belongs to that very small group of our novelists—Fielding and Jane Austen are the chief of them—who face life squarely. They are grown up. They do not cry for the moon. I do not mean that to be grown up is the first requirement of genius. To be grown up may be fatal to it. But short of the great illuminating madness, there is a power to sustain, assure and enlarge us in those novelists who are not driven back by life, who are not shattered by the discovery that it is a thing bounded by unsought limits, by interests as well as by hopes, and that it ripens under restriction.

A Gen-X movie about the acceptance of life’s limits—who’d have thunk it? This probably explains why High Fidelity, which received the most uniformly enthusiastic reviews of any American film since L.A. Confidential, has performed no better than adequately at the box office. I’m forever reading about how the members of Generation X are deeply disillusioned when it comes to matters of the heart, and I believe every word: precious few of my under-40 friends are in love, much less married, happily or otherwise. (Small wonder that they speak of “being in relationships,” not falling in love.) High Fidelity portrays their lives with dryly funny precision, which is doubtless why they aren’t flocking to see it. If I may be so bold as to quote myself one last time: moviegoers cannot bear very much reality. On that jaundiced note, I bid you, faithful readers, a fond adieu. See you in 2001!


  • Terry Teachout

    Terry Teachout is the drama critic of The Wall Street Journal, culture critic of Commentary, and the author of books on Louis Armstrong, H.L. Mencken, and George Banchine.

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