“What the hell, Dr. NerdLove,” I hear you cry. “A John Cusack movie? Have you lost your goddamn mind?”
I know, I know. John Cusack and Cameron Crowe have a special place in Nerd Hell waiting for them for what they’ve inadvertently done to impressionable geeks for generations. Stick with me though, because High Fidelity is, in my never-humble opinion, one of the best break-up movies (and the Nick Hornby book it’s adapted from) available… that doesn’t involve actively destroying your ex’s new boyfriend. It’s a rare movie that is willing to show a main character, the dumpee, as he really is: self-absorbed, absolutely convinced of his own self-righteousness and, critically, a complete asshole. And yet, Cusack’s charisma as Rob Gordon makes you identify with him even as you start to realize that you can identify with his asshole side too.
Which means naturally, there is plenty for nerds to learn from. Spoilers ahoy!
As the movie starts, Rob Gordon (Cusack) has just been dumped by Laura (Iben Hjejle and don’t ask me how you pronounce that) and has started down the oh-too-familiar downward spiral of connecting his current break-up with every failed relationship he’s ever had. As he tries to connect the dots between his Top Five All-Time Worst Break-Ups to his current failure, he manages to stumble across many important truths. Starting with:
Quit Wallowing – While the temptation to throw yourself a pity party is understandable. But you only have so long. A week at the most if there wasn’t an actual death. After that, you reach a state of diminishing returns until you hit thatpoint where you’re just soaking in the misery because you like it and none of your friends want to hear any more about old whats-her-name. Rob seems to actively define himself by how miserable he is and by his lost loves and frankly it’s obnoxious and self-absorbed. Let this be a lesson to all of you: you’re not Angel, and you’re certainly not Lord Byron. Quit brooding, it’s not romantic nor does it make you darkly sexy. It just makes you look like someone who’s too into how “tortured” he is. It’s the first-world problems of relationship issues.
Closure Doesn’t Exist – Closure is just another word for “vindication”. Closure is what you get when you’ve figured out how to justify what happened in order to make yourself feel better about the matter. Rob’s constant breast-beating and cloth-rending about his Top 5 break-ups comes to an abrupt halt only when he decides it does; he’s got his superficial answer and now he’s happy. Once you quit torturing yourself over “what happened,” you can decide to just get over things. Which reminds me:
Sometimes It Doesn’t Mean Anything – Relationships end, full stop. Sometimes there are no reasons for it. Sometimes there are. Most of the time, the reasons are as small and petty as “I just wanted out”. There isn’t always a grand unifying reason that will suddenly make everything make sense. Just because our brains are wired for pattern recognition doesn’t always mean that there’s actually a pattern there.
Being The One Who Got Dumped Doesn’t Make You Right – Rob spends almost the entire movie imagining that he’s the aggrieved party, and the fact that Laura initiated the break-up automatically makes us sympathize with him. It’s understandable; everyone can relate to being unfairly dumped by a relationship that seemed to be going smoothly. Clearly the dumper must be in the wrong. After all, Laura’s just left him and fled to the arms of Ian/Ray (Tim Robbins), breaking his heart and being, like, completely unfair about everything. Everything is going wrong for poor Rob, who is just a storm-tossed sailor, cast adrift in the tempestuous seas of cruel fate with no agency in his own sad life. Except as we find out, Rob is, well, a complete dick, and Laura was right to leave him. He’s borrowed huge sums of money from her without paying her back, had an affair while she was pregnant and was indirectly responsible for Laura terminating the pregnancy after he confessed. But hey, it’s not his fault, right? Honest self-awareness is a critical factor in all stages of a relationship, especially afterwards.
Quit Questioning A Good Thing – There are few things that will end a relationship faster than someone constantly picking at it. As far as Rob is concerned, his ex Charlie (Catherine Zeta-Jones) was so far outside of his league that he could never relax around her. She was exotic, smarter than him, more culturally aware, unbelievably beautiful… so why was she with him? Instead of doing the smart thing and thanking whatever gods he believed in, Rob spent the entire time questioning every aspect of their relationship, perpetually afraid that someone was going to call him out as a fraud or that she was going to be stolen out from under him by someone better. And, bless Pete, that’s exactly what happened. Oh, wait, no it’s not, he drove her away. While I understand better than most the insidious ways that low self-esteem and a poor self-image can affect a man’s confidence and relationships, you have to realize that if the goddess is with you, she’s with you for a reason. It’s your own insecurity that will drive her away, not some inherent flaw or some other guy.
Don’t Read The Tea Leaves – After Laura admits to Rob that she hasn’t slept with Ian/Ray… yet, Rob tortures himself trying to parse that sentence. All he is trying to do is convince himself that he’s wrong and that what he doesn’t already know the truth: that she’s going to sleep with him. And despite having already slept with someone else (hooray for double standards!) he can’t handle it. If you find yourself combing through everything a person says or does, looking for the tiniest grains of meaning, you already know what the answer is. You just don’t want to admit it.
Don’t Try To Date the Fantasy – A recurring theme in these movies, and for once, one that gets called out directly in the script. As Rob himself says “the fantasy doesn’t really exist. And it never delivers.” You have basically fallen in love with a figment of your own imagination and you will only be disappointed when reality fails to live up to your expectations.
Being a Snob Doesn’t Make You Cool – No, seriously. It just makes you an elitist asshole who desperately wants some form of justification so that you can feel superior to other people.
You Can’t Handle The Truth – Let’s just say that you’ve ignored the other tropes on this list and decided to seek “closure” from your exes. And let’s say you make like Rob and Charlie ask for the real reason why the two of you broke up. You’re not going to like what you get. Be honest with yourself: you don’t want the truth, you just want to justify it to yourself.
Apologize – And mean it. There are few things more powerful than a sincere, heart-felt apology. Don’t bother trying to fake it; false apologies make will only make things worse. Sincerity has a tone and texture all of it’s own and it’s easily recognizable from the fake.
Sometimes They Come Back – Sometimes “good-bye” doesn’t mean “the end”. Sometimes couples do give it another chance, even after the yelling, the heartbreak and tears. But ultimately, that second (or third, or fourth) go-round is just as doomed as the first if you haven’t dealt with the underlying issues. Until those have been fixed, all you are doing is postponing the inevitable break-up. Again.
And FYI, in a fit of musical synchronicity, today’s article is written to the excellent Pickin’ Up The Pieces by Fitz and the Tantrums. Check them out.