Nigh Fidelity — Shortcomings

William J Hammon
7 min readAug 11, 2023

Arguably the most formulaic of film genres, it’s rare when a romantic comedy reaches for something beyond the conventions of the style. Attractive people have a meet-cute, fall in love, have some third act conflict, and then reconcile for their version of a “happily ever after.” There are plenty of movies that work within this system, but the process is largely rote.

That’s why one of my all-time favorite films is High Fidelity, one of the few rom-coms that broke out of the paint-by-numbers plotting and actually tried something different. The story itself begins with the breakup of John Cusack’s Rob and Iben Hjejle’s Laura, rather than making it a perfunctory plot beat an hour in. The actual romance is in Rob’s self-examination of how his relationships form a continuing cycle of failure. His fourth wall-breaking conversations with the viewing audience allows us to sympathize with a fundamentally flawed character even if we don’t agree with his attitudes and actions. There’s a genuine exploration of the idea that maybe Laura is better off without Rob, and vice versa. And even when they get back together, it’s not about wrapping everything up with a neat little bow. It’s about evolving as people, compromising, taking the good with the bad, and ending on a note of realistic hope for the future rather than a definitive answer. It’s just as likely that a year after the movie’s events, Rob and Laura are married or broken up again. Then on the side you have the tremendous catalog soundtrack and Jack Black’s breakout role as the comic relief to supplement the package and help the whole affair earn its resolution.

I got distinct notes of that experience while watching Shortcomings, the feature directorial debut for actor Randall Park (himself a veteran of slightly non-standard rom-com fare), and written by Adrian Tomine, adapting his 2007 graphic novel of the same name. Eschewing — and even outright mocking — the traditional procedures for this type of movie, there’s a sincerity about its focus on a decidedly curmudgeonly lead and his quest for emotional honesty in an environment built on lies and hypocrisy, including his own. It doesn’t quite reach the heights of its spiritual predecessor, but it’s still an enjoyable ride overall.

Justin H. Min stars as Ben, a manager at an arthouse movie theatre in Berkeley, a college town filled to the brim with hipsters and philistines. He’s dating Miko (Ally Maki), an aspiring producer who works to advance Asian-American representation in media. They’ve been living together for a few years, and have certainly gotten used to each other in their relationship, though they still have odd arguments that get out of hand, particularly about Ben’s attraction to white women, which Miko believes is both racist and fetishist. Ben spends a good deal of his free time palling around with his best friend Alice (Sherry Cola) at various cafés and diners, comparing notes on their respective dealings with women (Alice’s lesbianism is played for some well-crafted laughs).

The tone is set quite early on as Ben accompanies Miko to a film festival for Asian creators that she’s been running. They watch Stephanie Hsu and Ronny Chieng in a very by-the-book entry that gets a great response from the audience, but Ben absolutely hates it. He’s proud of Miko for her hard work, but he dismisses the picture as just being another rom-com that celebrates wealth and features people with no real problems who just happen to be of the Asian diaspora, arguing that the idea of representation isn’t nearly as important as what idea is being represented by their participation. I’m instantly engaged with this line of thinking, not the least of which is because he’s echoing my sentiments about Crazy Rich Asians, and because the scene is an outright parody of that movie, as this happy ending is literally a repeat of its opening, with a person jilted by a bigoted hotel concierge delivering comeuppance by buying the hotel, stunning him with their affluence.

And just to be clear, even if I didn’t agree with Ben’s take, I’d still be intrigued. I love a good discussion of film. It’s why I do this blog in the first place. But more importantly, this opening establishes the lived-in nature of his and Miko’s dynamic in a fun and nuanced way. They’re both passionate even when their viewpoints are opposed, allowing their perspectives to be incompatible, but not in direct conflict. You can tell they’ve felt each other out over the years, and have found some comfortable areas to coexist.

That makes it all the more surprising when Miko declares that she’s been picked for an internship that would require her to move to New York for three months, and as such, the relationship is put on hold. They never officially split up, and it’s only ever mentioned that they’re “taking some time off,” even though as things wear on you can tell that they’ve soured on one another, especially from Miko’s point of view. This also leaves Ben in a grey area straight out of Friends, as he tries to figure out if he’s free to pursue something — or someone — on the side.

Jinks ensue (I wouldn’t necessarily go so far as to say “high” jinks) as Ben tries to hookup with his new employee, Autumn (Tavi Gevinson), and Alice’s rebounding friend, Sasha (Debby Ryan). The problem is that he keeps getting in his own way. He can’t fake being interested in Autumn’s spoken-word poetry slams and art projects, and he can’t stifle his insecurities when it comes to Sasha’s sexual past. He’s self-aware, but arguably too much so, because he internalizes everything and spins it as some grand cosmic conspiracy against him. It doesn’t help that a contrived set of circumstances does end up coming off like a Morton Salt situation (“When it rains, it pours”), but the only person who will call him out on his bullshit in a way that he’ll listen to is Alice. Even that seems to be reaching its limit, as Alice herself is ready to move to New York, leaving Ben with no outlet for his gripes until he decides to bite his lip and travel eastward himself, despite how much he hates the city and everything he believes it stands for (in true contrarian fashion, he’s formed all of his NYC opinions despite never actually having been).

This is where the movie starts to lose me just a little. There’s an earnestness about Ben, and the dialogue is clever enough for Min to make the most out of the material, but it keeps coming up frustratingly short of saying something profound. Part of what made High Fidelity an instant classic was because Rob had wins and losses along his journey. He had to learn when to press the issue with one of his exes, when to leave well enough alone, when to call someone on the carpet, when to blame himself, and crucially, when to absolve himself. It’s what helps us see the growth in the character, turning from a sad sack into someone who embraces who he is to be the best version of himself, acknowledging his faults and working on them while cutting himself some slack for not being perfect. That’s how you become a better partner, not by being flawless, but by putting in the work to continually improve.

Ben never really gets to that point. There are times in the story where he’s wronged, and there are parts where he does wrong. But they’re lumped together as a whole rather than discussed in isolation. No better is this illustrated than when he discovers the truth behind Miko’s departure. There are massive arguments between him, Miko, Alice, and Alice’s new girlfriend Meredith (Sonoya Mizuno) about double standards, self-serving rationalization, and cultural obligations. But instead of approaching the issues in the biting, analytical way he attacked a tacky movie, he’s mostly clutching at straws and being publicly shamed. Even when he’s right he can’t enjoy the moment because the script demands he lose the argument, to the point that the chances for a hopeful, open-ended resolution are substituted for a nebulous shoulder shrug that feels like he’s accepting his own solitude as penance for sins committed only by him and no one else.

Cynics need love, too, and it felt like the film pulled one too many punches to try to subvert expectations while essentially reinforcing the romantic comedy checklist. Someone who’s not Ben gets to have the “happily ever after,” but not a flawed person living in the real world. Shallow people get to have what they want, but a genuine person is punished for criticizing them. Even one of the mic drop moments is little more than penalizing Ben for not following a cliché. No real lessons are learned, and no emotional intelligence is really gained, save for a few snippets of understanding scattered along the way.

This doesn’t doom the film, but it does prevent it from reaching its full potential. The performances are still very strong, and the actual comedy moments are on point. Even the weirdly shoehorned pop culture references work for me. For example, one of Ben’s employees, Gene, argues that the Tom Holland Spider-Man movies are the only good part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, with the joke being that Gene is played by Jacob Batalon, who plays Ned in that series. As audience winks go, it’s pretty good. The pieces are all there, and more often than not, it comes together just fine. When the focus is on Ben trying to navigate his sudden quasi-bachelorhood, there’s a lot of charm and insight to be had. When the flick is about trying to justify wrong actions while talking in rhetorical circles, it lives up to its title.

Grade: B

Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? What actors would you like to see get a shot behind the camera? What’s the worst city you’ve never been to? Let me know! Also, don’t forget to follow me on Twitter (fuck “X”) and YouTube!

Originally published at http://actuallypaid.com on August 11, 2023.

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William J Hammon

All content is from the blog, “I Actually Paid to See This,” available at actuallypaid.com