This feature originally ran in August 2015. We’re reposting it for the 40th anniversary of Annie Hall.
I only use the phrase “there’s always next year” in two situations: at the end of a disappointing baseball season and after seeing a new Woody Allen movie that falls short of expectations. Last week, I muttered those words after exiting a matinee screening of Allen’s latest film, Irrational Man. It’s a film about a philosophy professor’s attempt to reinject meaning into his life, which, ironically, prompted me to contemplate how many ways I could end my own using only a medium soda cup and straw, a half-empty box of Milk Duds, and a discarded purple umbrella. Incidentally, seven ways.
When I got home, I flipped on Allen’s masterpiece, Annie Hall, as a sort of cinematic Listerine to cleanse my palette and remind me of why I’ll purchase a ticket every time he releases a film. After the familiar Alvy and Annie closing montage — set to Diane Keaton’s rendition of “Seems Like Old Times” – and Allen’s final voiceover faded out, I noticed that High Fidelity was only two spots down in my queue. Odd that it took the serendipity of a Netflix scroll to make me finally connect these two films.
After all, I have a long history with both movies. High Fidelity came first for me. Like Singles did with grunge, Stephen Frears’ adaptation of Nick Hornby’s novel used Jack Black and music to trick me and countless other teenage males into watching a romantic comedy – sometimes in packs. Later on, it became a regular movie-date compromise. I’d get pop culture, and she’d get pop romance. Annie, though, was always a date movie – actually, more a litmus test for vetting long-term relationship prospects. Most dates would grow bored after a half-hour or so, and more than one prospective girlfriend tapped out after Alvy’s explanation for why his “Grammy” never gave gifts: “She was too busy getting raped by Cossacks.” Fair enough, ladies.
I never made any real connection between the films themselves, though. I only remember finding it ironic that both of my go-to date movies were about breakups. But my analyst and I agree that that says more about me than it does about the obvious similarities between these films. And they are remarkably similar. So, did Frears simply slap jeans and a t-shirt on a non-Jewish, slightly less neurotic Alvy Singer, relocate him to Chicago, and stick him in a record store? Not quite, but comparing these two films – shot more than two decades apart – does shed light on certain timeless pitfalls that continue to plague relationships. Maybe, then, the similarities owe less to Frears borrowing directly from Annie Hall and more to the fact that each generation of not-so-young-anymore men seems to need a reminder that if we don’t get our acts together soon, we may miss our chance at true and lasting love.
One thing is certain: most serious romantic comedies post-1977 do owe some debt, however small, to Annie Hall. And, clearly, High Fidelity owes more than most.
Update: Read our full Oral History of High Fidelity, which includes interviews with Nick Hornby, John Cusack, Jack Black, and others.
Click ahead to see the breakdown.
Plot and Themes
“I would never want to belong to any club that would have someone like me for a member.” –Alvy Singer
“Why would a girl like Charlie go out with a guy like me?” –Rob Gordon
Both films have essentially the same plot. The dumped, Alvy Singer (Woody Allen) and Rob Gordon (John Cusack), reflect back on their respective relationships and try to figure out where things went wrong. But their inquiries take on larger implications than just sifting through the evidence of a single failed relationship. Losing Annie (Diane Keaton) and Laura (even if Rob won’t initially put her in his Top Five All-Time Breakup List ) cuts deeply, and both Alvy and Rob, each at the age when most men settle down, are beginning to suspect that something may be preventing them from ever finding happiness in lasting relationships. As Rob asks, “Why am I doomed to be left, doomed to be rejected?” To find answers, both dive into a full-blown relationship inventories, Alvy analyzing his relationship with Annie, previous marriages, and dates and Rob actively revisiting his illustrious top five breakups in hopes of some form of vindication. The only significant difference between plots is that Annie is long gone, and Rob still clings to his 9% chance (Laura’s estimate) of getting back together.
Like many romantic comedies, Annie Hall and High Fidelity explore why love fades and relationships don’t work out, but these films are more unique in how their protagonists suspect that some defect in themselves is to blame for their string of relationship woes. For instance, Alvy glumly concludes that he subconsciously pushed his first wife, Alison (Carol Kane), away, perhaps only for the unthinkable crime of wanting to be with a guy like him. Rob, on the other hand, reacts emphatically with raised arms and pumped fists when he discovers that his middle school girlfriend, whom he dated for all of six hours, ended up marrying the boy she dumped him for. “I am fine now … This is great. This has nothing to do with me!” he shouts in his empty apartment, relieved that Fate is the culprit, not him. As fatuous and silly as Alvy and Rob can be, they’re indeed facing a terrifying prospect with long-term implications. If they’re damaged goods and always at fault for their failed relationships, then perhaps they are truly doomed to end up alone and miserable. To quote Alvy, “What a depressing thought.”
“Life is divided up into the horrible and the miserable … so when you go through life,
you should be thankful that you’re miserable.” –Alvy Singer
“Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable, or was I miserable because I listened to pop music?” –Rob Gordon
At first glance, Alvy and Rob seem like totally different characters. Allen’s neurotic New York Jew bears little surface resemblance to Cusack’s mopey pop-culture junkie. However, Annie’s diagnosis of Alvy near the conclusion of Annie Hall could easily be applied to Rob: “You’re incapable of enjoying life.” Rob, though the symptoms may be different, shares Alvy’s insecurity, self-absorption, and, most detrimentally, his inability to truly value a good relationship until after the fact. In Rob’s imagination, the grass is always greener, the lingerie is always sexier, and the sex is always better with every woman but the one he is currently with. The turning point in High Fidelity comes when Rob finally understands that this isn’t the case. “Other women, they’re just fantasies,” he tells Laura (Iben Hjejle). “I’m tired of the fantasy because it doesn’t really exist.” It’s Rob’s first step away from perpetual, self-imposed misery — that inability to enjoy life, patented and perfected by Alvy.
“You’re like New York City … You’re like this island unto yourself.” –Annie Hall
“You’re the same person that you used to be, and I’m not” –Laura
Annie and Laura are essential elements to these films. They’re beautiful, believable, and blossoming as people — in short, the type of exes that should make Alvy and Rob question themselves long and hard. Both Annie (the once inchoate hayseed from Chippewa Falls) and Laura (the pink-haired dance clubber turned lawyer) have outgrown their exes and have seen every one of their attempts to prod or nurture Alvy and Rob along shot down by an ingrained resistance to change. Only when they’re gone do Alvy and Rob realize they’ve blown it. When Alvy hyperventilates over corralling lobsters into a pot in a moment identical to one he once shared with Annie, his new date doesn’t understand what all the fuss is about, and he finds himself speechless when she asks him to explain an offhand joke. Rob reflects upon his time with Laura, “She didn’t make me anxious or miserable or ill at ease. It sounds boring, but it wasn’t … it was just good. But really good.” Both Alvy and Rob have experienced being with someone who truly gets them, and anything less in the future will pale in comparison. There won’t be another girl quite like Annie or Laura, and Alvy and Rob know it. Hence, crisis time.
What’s most striking about watching Annie Hall for the first time is how Allen pieces the film together. Alvy begins by breaking the fourth wall, and then anything goes. It’s a stream-of-consciousness patchwork that can flashback, leap forward, or step away from reality all together. It’s a strange but beautiful spattering of memories, analysis, and annotations — a form that mimics how one might go about sorting through something as complicated and messy as an abandoned relationship. High Fidelity similarly places us in Rob’s hands, all the more so due to his constant breaking of the fourth wall. Not only are we privy to Rob’s reflective process, but Frears, like Allen before him, mines the surrealist potential of the format for laughs. Just as Alvy summons Marshall McLuhan to put a loud theater-lobby pseudo-intellectual in his place, Rob calls upon Bruce Springsteen for advice before embarking on his mission to revisit all his exes. And if Alvy can pop into a Snow White cartoon where Annie is the evil queen, why shouldn’t Rob be able to imagine several responses, each one more violent than the last, to Laura’s ponytailed new boyfriend, Ian (Tim Robbins), walking into his record shop? It’s difficult to imagine High Fidelity finding this structure, equally suited at unearthing insights and eliciting laughs, had Annie Hall not done it two decades prior.
As Annie makes clear, Alvy is synonymous with New York City. Both are anxious, chaotic, and firmly set in their ways. No place else, be it quaint Chippewa Falls or vapid Los Angeles, can sustain a person like him. Allen brilliantly demonstrates this idea by having Alvy fall to pieces in LA, shooting the west coast in blinding, bleached light, and reducing every person out there to a superficial stereotype (“Right now it’s only a notion, but I think I can get money to make it into a concept and later turn it into an idea.”). Chicago may not symbolize Rob as New York does Alvy, but it’s fair to say that the Windy City also acts as a prominent character in High Fidelity. And it’s more than just the familiar downtown riverfront shots or the sights and sounds of the “L” throughout the film. Whether it’s latest temptation Caroline, who works for the Chicago Reader (an actual alternative weekly), talking to Rob about seeing him DJ at the Double Door (a Chicago venue); the Ladybug Transistor Schubas poster (another Chicago venue) in Rob’s apartment; or watching Rob walk outside local, iconic theaters like the Music Box and the Biograph, everything lends to the authenticity of the character. If Rob Gordon was actually a pop-culture junkie living in Chi-town, these would be his haunts. Hell, I’d personally see him all the time.
Happily Ever After?
You can make the argument that both Annie Hall and High Fidelity end relatively happily. Alvy concludes that relationships are “totally irrational, crazy, and absurd,” but they’re ultimately worth the pain they cause. And Rob, now fed up with fantasy, is finally concentrating all his efforts on his real relationship with Laura. Will either get it right this time? Who knows. Why do they do it? The same reason I sat through all those Annie Hall and High Fidelity movie dates with girls. Because most of us, uh, need the eggs.