Spoilers for Hulu’s High Fidelity below.
Hollywood, may you never sell Zoë Kravitz short again. We’ll excuse the second season of HBO’s Big Little Lies, in which glimpses of Kravitz’s PTSD-stricken Bonnie are ultimately squashed by a courtroom drama, because after the recent release of Hulu’s High Fidelity, you wouldn’t dare squander her again, would you? She remixed a classic, and it’s good. Maybe even better than the original.
Executive producer Kravitz and the show creators, Sarah Kucserka and Veronica West, took a risk when they dared reboot High Fidelity, gender-flipping a story with a long history of white heterosexual maleness: a book, a short-lived Broadway musical, and a beloved John Cusack-led film. Its hero, Rob, is an archetype, a card-carrying member of the Lonely Hearts Club with a penchant for vintage vinyl and categorizing his life into lists. After a catastrophic break-up, he decides to revisit his “desert-island, all-time, top-five most memorable break-ups” while running a floundering record store with a pair of idiosyncratic audiophiles.
Upon its 1995 release, Nick Hornby’s novel became something of the music snob’s bible, a manifesto of the wounded male psyche and how to split it open. It’s snively but self-aware—a good book that could feel outdated to a 2020 audience. Then there’s the film. Director Stephen Frears’ 2000 movie was a success with both critics and audiences, so the announcement of Kravitz’s project two decades later was met with some skepticism. We live in the Age of Reboots. Did we really need another?
Turns out, yes. Hulu’s High Fidelity pays homage to the original while twisting the story to fit a new time, a new place, and perhaps most importantly, a new Rob: a bisexual biracial woman. Below, the similarities and contrasts that make High Fidelity more than stack up to the source material.
Rob is gender-flipped and reinvented.
It’s easy for Hollywood to Scotch-tape women over traditionally male stories—Ghostbusters and Ocean’s Eight are just two recent examples. But it’s an impressive accomplishment to take the male story and actually make it work for a female narrative. Kravitz does that. Her Rob is biracial and bisexual, which gives her story more depth. Her musical taste is also more interesting; in one scene, she schools a mansplaining, ponytail-wearing middle-aged adulterer who dismisses her knowledge of Paul McCartney and The Wings. Joke’s on him, as she knows exactly what she’s talking about.
The setting is switched to Crown Heights.
Although the book and film place Rob’s story in London and Chicago, respectively, it makes perfect sense to move her shop, Championship Vinyl, to Crown Heights, Brooklyn. And, of course, viewers were quick to point out how much time Rob spends in Williamsburg and Greenpoint rather than her home neighborhood, which is very millennial of her. The show, like the film, is self-aware enough to mock itself.
The supporting characters are given more space to breathe.
Jack Black delivered a standout performance as Barry, Rob’s larger-than-life co-worker, in the film. Todd Louiso’s Dick, the more soft-spoken record shop employee, was sweet but not altogether engaging. Both characters are creatively remade for Hulu’s adaptation.
Barry becomes Cherise (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), whose wisecracking deserves its own starring role. She’s an absolute powerhouse, and unlike Black’s Barry, she has hidden insecurities that make her final arc more interesting. Dick is Simon (David H. Holmes), reinvented as one of Rob’s top-five heartbreaks, who turns out to be gay. Even Catherine Zeta-Jones’s film character, Charlie, is reworked for the Instagram era: She’s now Kat Monroe, an insufferable influencer hosting parties for folks she’s never met IRL. These are brilliant changes, adding both levity and depth to the original cast. Simon even gets his own episode, one of the best of the series.
The show masters the film’s iconic fourth-wall breaking.
John Cusack’s casual rapport with the camera in the 2000 film formed an instant connection between the lonely loser and a similarly suffering audience at home. But while Cusack’s Rob was often either lethargic or aggressive with his viewers, Kravitz nails an effortless cool. Cusack’s Rob felt the need to constantly explain himself, and his insecurity was tangible. Kravitz knows you get her, and, in fact, she’d love if you’d stick around so she can work through her troubles with you. Her delivery is smooth, and you want to curl up in her voice.
Hulu pays homage to memorable film scenes, and mostly it works.
If you’re a High Fidelity stan, chances are you remember Cusack screaming at Charlie in the rain and demanding of the camera, “What fucking Ian guy??” when he learns his ex, Laura, is seeing a new man. Oh, and when Rob meets Ian, he imagines several, uh, creative ways of attacking him.
Kravitz tries her hand at these scenes, screeching at Kat in the middle of a downpour and drawing up an impressive growl as she yells, “What. Fucking. Lily giiiiiiiirl??” in episode 2. These references might ring a little too overt for some viewers, but if nothing else they’re charming. And, gosh, it’s fun to see the chill Kravitz lose her cool.
Kravitz steals Cusack’s style—and his lines—but makes them her own.
You don’t get far into the first few episodes without catching glimpses of Kravitz invoking Cusack. She wears his leather jacket, his tiny Ray Bans, his Dickies t-shirt. It’s just that, y’know, she’s Zoë Kravitz, so she makes the outfits look a lot better.
But the show also hijacks some of the film’s best lines. When Cusack’s Rob is tracking down his ex-lovers, he says about Charlie: “She’s a myth, she’s a legend, she shouldn’t be in the phone book!” Kravitz’s Rob gives it a spin for Kat: “She’s a myth, she’s a legend, she’s…on goddamn Instagram.”
There are a number of other great examples—“What really matters is what you like, not what you are like”; “If you don’t know there’s not a chance, then there’s still a chance, right?”—but each declared by different characters with slightly different meanings. This is nostalgia done right, reinvented without tarnishing the original.
Hulu capitalizes on what the movie couldn’t squeeze in.
Several beloved scenes from the book didn’t make it into the final cut of the 2000 film. One is brilliantly worked into the Hulu adaptation as an accidental date for Rob and wannabe-lover Clyde (Jake Lacy), a Wonder Bread nice guy from Colorado who frequents climbing gyms and listens to Phish. He tags along as she visits the home of Noreen (played by an impeccable Parker Posey), an artist who owns an impressive record collection. Turns out, they belong to her husband, and she’s willing to fork them over for a crisp $20 as a way of getting back at her cheating spouse.
It’s one of the best scenes of both the book and show, because it forces Rob to reckon with his/her own moral quandaries: What’s more important? What you like—the records—or what you are like, a jerk? Do you take the records, which clearly matter to this man, even though he’s a jerk? Does he deserve to be stripped of the one thing he loves? Does Rob?
Most importantly, the Hulu adaptation creates more interesting relationships with its longer run time. Rob gets to have a brother, multiple lovers—including a replacement for Marie DeSalle, the musician Kravitz’s mother, Lisa Bonet, played in the 2000 film—and a true friendship with Simon and Cherise, who slowly teach her not to be so self-centered.
The ultimate payoff of the series might not match that of the book or film, but its differences provide a worthy (and entertaining) journey of its own. Kravitz accomplished what Cusack did at the turn of the century: You want to stay in Rob’s world long after the credits roll and Stevie Wonder begins to play.