High Fidelity

How Not to be Like Rob: A review of High Fidelity (2000)

From the perspective of an attraction artist, most of this film is an excellent example of what NOT to do.  There are a couple of notable exceptions, but I’ll get to those in a moment.  First, allow me to explain how our protagonist, Rob (John Cusack), manages to set himself up for such spectacular romantic failure time and again.

This well-crafted, schadenfreude-laden comedy is thick with dramatic irony, since the audience understands long before the main character does exactly what he is doing wrong and thus why his love life is a disaster area.  Put simply, Rob is a navel-gazing master of self-defeat.  He manages to sabotage anything resembling success in his life, and then blame his misery on the women who ultimately (and rather wisely) decline to follow his downward spiral.

Here are a few practical tips on how NOT to be like Rob:

Be a player, not a pouter.

After enjoying his first taste of tonsil hockey with Alison (Shannon Stilo), Rob takes it personally when she moves on, and rather than getting her back or moving on himself, he proceeds to pout for the remainder of the movie, or approximately fifteen years of his life.  Now, as a clueless teenager he was probably not yet equipped with the proper technology to win her back.  But I’m sure he was surrounded by girls who had been itching to experiment since elementary school, and it would have been easy to build on his success with Alison and simply move on.  Amusing as it is for Rob to blame all his romantic ills on a six-hour relationship in junior high school, I suspect that every woman has at some point had to deal with a pouter in real life, and trust me, we are not amused.

Similarly, when Penny (Joelle Carter) won’t let Rob get to second base, his reaction is to put on a pouty face and walk out on her, whining, “What’s the point?”  *facepalm*  Penny’s resistance was a classic example of most women’s overriding desire for plausible deniability.  He would have had his hand under Penny’s shirt in no time had he instead subtly withdrawn his attention, without emotional upset or accusation.  In other words, appear desireless and distractible so as to take the pressure off of Penny and to motivate her to give chase.  Mastering the art of (apparent) under-reaction is called ghost, and it is the attraction skill which Rob most glaringly lacks for most of the movie.

Stop playing the blame game.

In his breakup with Laura (Iben Hjejle), Rob is the consummate sore loser.  He takes zero responsibility for their issues and immediately goes on the attack.  Because hey, what’s more attractive than a constant stream of harassing phone calls that are equal parts bitter and pathetic?  Liz (Joan Cusack)’s opinion that he is only bringing Laura and Ray (a.k.a. Ian, masterfully played by Tim Robbins) closer together is spot-on.   Without offering her any real incentive to return, the only tool at his disposal is emotional manipulation, a.k.a. guilt tripping.  And how is a woman supposed to react to that?

“Hmmm, I thought you were kind of a pathetic loser, so I left you.  But it turns out you’re an angry, manipulative douche-nozzle instead.  My mistake!  Guess I’ll take you back now so you don’t think I’m a bad person…”

The only reason her eventual decision to be with Rob is in any way believable is that she believes that underneath this temporary psychosis he is actually a lovable guy.  And he is, despite it all.  But let it be noted that had he put the same amount of effort into self-improvement that he poured into his fits of jealous rage, his spiteful diatribes, and all the pity parties he throws in his own honor, he would have been Prince freaking Charming before the first end credit rolled by.

Don’t be of, or display, low value.

Without getting too deep into the psychology of a movie character, Rob’s main problem is that, despite owning his own business, he lacks value.  To himself or anyone else.  He has a vast amount of knowledge about music which he has put to precious little practical use, and he is deeply unhappy with his life.

To make matters worse, he spends most of the movie demonstrating that low value to every female who comes near him.  This is especially apparent in the scene where he goes out with Penny years later to get some answers about his past.  About 90% of what comes out of Rob’s mouth in that scene is a DLV.  A lot of men do this in an effort to gain sympathy, and as a kind of full disclosure which absolves them if they are eventually found to be lacking.   But what it really does is to put the woman in a very awkward position.

Now you’ve made yourself unattractive as a prospective mate, and put all kinds of pressure on her to accept you anyway.  Not pleasant.

However, true to trope, amidst all of Rob’s whining he does manage—in the great Woody Allenien tradition of likeable neurotics—to get a couple of very high-value women to sleep with him in spite of himself.   How did he attract Alison in the first place?  And how, oh how, does such a sad sack manage to get in the sack with a ridiculously high-value woman like Marie de Salle (Lisa Bonet)?  So glad you asked.

How Rob (occasionally) succeeds:

This is not in fact, bad writing, but creative writing; as the entire genre of romantic comedy has taught us, everyone gets lucky once in a while, game or no game.  But in Rob’s case there is a little more than luck working in his favor.

When he meets Alison, he is a DJ.  And ludicrous as it may seem, the hype is true: DJ’s, bartenders, and bouncers really do get more action than your average club-goer.  Why?  Because they have power.  That power may be limited, both in range and scope, but within the specific venue where they spin, mix, or bounce, they have clout.  Who do you ask when you need a drink or some cheap advice?  The bartender.  Who do you appeal to when you want to get into a crowded club, or get someone else thrown out of one?  The bouncer.  And who do you cozy up to when you want to hear your favorite song?  That’s right: the DJ.  So as a DJ, Rob had automatic game, giving Alison the opportunity to meet and get to know him as a person.

On to Marie.  In the scene where Rob first meets the sultry singer, Rob is distracted and low-key, which, in direct contrast to the obvious try-hard strategies of his two employees, Dick (Todd Louiso) and Barry (Jack Black), makes him appear to be of high value as the busy and withdrawn owner of a record store.  The next time he sees her, she has actually come into his store, so he has the territorial advantage.  Whatever he may be outside, within the confines of his record store, Rob is king.  Furthermore, he is still distracted thanks to Liz dropping the bomb that Laura is seeing some guy named “Ian” just seconds before she walks in.  This ensures that Rob is not over-attentive to Marie, although this is calibrated by the fact that he is playing her music over the sound system, which translates to genuine admiration for something she feels proud of.

So by the time he ends up at the bar with her, they have already met twice, and he has left an intriguingly elusive impression thus far.  They then discover a long list of common interests, clicking on a connection switch.  A connection switch, btw, is something that triggers an internal shift toward intimacy.  So by the time he launches into his DLV-laden tale of love lost, it is actually re-framed as a trust-building show of vulnerability.  More connection switches go off: loyalty, sentimentality, willingness to commit.  Meanwhile his passion on the subject sets off an attraction reaction, leading directly into—TA-DA!—a one night stand.  Which, by the way, he can’t really enjoy due to his continued obsession with Laura’s imagined infidelity.

But perhaps the most useful character in this film from a PUA perspective is not Rob but Charlie (Catherine Zeta-Jones), his Euro-hipster ex-girlfriend.

Portrait of an Alpha.

Charlie is the ultimate Alpha female.  She is a master of frame control and has Rob jumping through hoops within seconds on the phone.

After the obligatory phone greeting, the first thing out of her mouth is a peal of laughter, immediately setting a playful, carefree tone.  Next, she tosses off a casual demonstration of higher value or DHV by telling Rob she just got back into town.  She doesn’t say from where, leaving an intriguing sound space.  Next she negs him with an ironic, “THE Rob Gordon,” and sound spaces again, waiting for him to add value to the conversation.  He asks her the expected: Got kids?  Her response is another onslaught of DHVs: too young, too single, etc.  Then before he has a chance to toss another question her way, she lances a hoop in his path.

“Are you in or out?”

No explanation of her meaning, just a hoop followed by a sound space.  Even by not answering, he falls into the frame she has just set up for him: he is the clueless outsider wanting to get back in.  Her explanation, that there has been a “rash” of ex-boyfriends going through some sort of midlife crisis lately, sets him even more deeply into the pathetic outsider frame.  She builds tension by bringing up Rocco, the man for whom she left Rob, putting even more pressure on him to jump through her hoop or fall into the frame of “sad and lonely ex.”  Finally, he caves in and asks her what she means by in or out.  She explains that “in” means that they are friends (meaning, we infer, that the past is forgiven).  “Out” means that he is just another melancholy ex trying to get some sort of meaningful emotional explanation from her, in which case she is too busy to play catch-up on the phone.  So he has very little choice but to jump through her hoop by answering, “I’m in.”

Once he has hopped through her hoop, she rooks him into coming onto her turf, on her terms.  He shows up at a dinner party where he is out-numbered, out-classed, and essentially ignored all night long.  Now, if Charlie wanted to hang onto Rob, she surely would have treated him differently that evening.  There was no reason to steal his chair, for example, or to neg him by calling him “Jellybean” or noting that his wine was a bit warm, now that she had him back at her place and already eating out of her hand.  This was not a seduction, and was not intended as one.  But it is worth noting that it easily could have been.  Had she been just a bit more attentive and flipped a couple of connection switches for Rob, she could have had him easily even after his realization that she is superficial and cruel.  Whatever we might think of Charlie as a person, she is clearly a masterful seductress.  P.S. Everything she did would have worked if the gender roles had been reverse with very minimal tweaking.