TV Reviews

Hulu's "High Fidelity" Finds Its Groove with Zoë Kravitz

The new series about a lovelorn Brooklyn record store owner nods at the Nick Hornby novel and John Cusack film but successfully goes its own way.

Phillip Caruso/Hulu

Zoe Kravitz plays Rob Brooks in the Hulu reboot of "High Fidelity."

Zoë Kravitz's well-produced, gender-flipped reboot of High Fidelity plays out far better than the usual remake.

The 10-episode Hulu series, which began streaming today, takes its framework and other elements from the 1995 Nick Hornby novel and the 2000 movie starring John Cusack and builds something surprisingly relevant and new.

In the new take on High Fidelity, Rob is still an intelligent but rudderless music-loving thirty-something record store owner navigating a string of bad relationships with the help of amazing soundtracks. Only now, she's a bisexual black woman in Brooklyn, rather than a straight white male in Chicago.

However, that doesn't entirely explain why the Hulu version of High Fidelity feels so different from its other iterations.

Maybe it's Kravitz. She plays Rob with warmth and brains, tempered with awkwardness in emotional situations. It makes for a far more likable lead character than Cusack's "sad bastard," whose rage occasionally boiled over.

And because she's more likable, the people around her are also more likable. Her record store employees, Simon (David H. Holmes) and Cherise (Da'Vine Joy Randolph), are far more nurturing than the ones in the film, which included a scenery-chewing Jack Black in his breakout movie role. Unlike previous versions, Rob now also has a seemingly normal, supportive family and her ex-boyfriends don't generally seem that horrible – though her ex-girlfriend, Kat (perhaps a nod to Catherine Zeta-Jones, who played the analogous role in the film) does seem pretty awful as an Instagram influencer.

Maybe the improvement is in the writing. In the new version, the clever banter from the movie and the book have deeper ramifications. For example, to start the second episode, Rob and her employees debate whether or not to sell Michael Jackson's "Off the Wall" album to a customer.

"How does it benefit society to hold Quincy's genius hostage because the dude who sang over his sh*t ended up being a full-blown child molester?" Rob says, swayed by her love of producer Quincy Jones' horn charts on the album.

"Where'd you get that from, Rob?" Cherise asks. "'Convenient Opinions R Us'?"

"You still listen to a dude who raps in a MAGA hat, so..." replies Rob.

"Having sh*tty politics and a second-grade understanding of American history is a tiny bit different than being a goddamn child molester," replies Cherise.

They keep going, touching on Charles Manson, mental health issues, and the idea that few artists are unquestionably good people, then quickly changing the subject.

Thanks to the luxury of being a series rather than a film, High Fidelity can spend some time on these interesting characters and their interesting lives and ideas. In fact, though Rob counts down his "All-Time Top Five Most Memorable Heartbreaks" in this version like all the others, the series improves the further it deviates from that original framework.

Kravitz has clearly lived with this material for a long time. (Her mom, Lisa Bonet, played the small, but memorable role of musician Marie DeSalle in the movie, and Kravitz names the club the characters hang out in DeSalle's as a homage.) She also knows its shortcomings. Though Hornby's novel was influential in popularizing the idea of boiling pop culture down into lists, 25 years later the Internet is overflowing with Top 5 lists, and every listicle imaginable has already been written. Luckily, though that construct seems a bit dated, Rob's issues with her love life—and her worries about not having one—feel timeless. And once again, the crisp writing serves her well.

"Next week, on 'The Sad Lady Show,' we're going to team up," Rob says one bummed-out night, watching her neighbor across the street also smoke a cigarette alone. "Fight the loneliness together with cats and cigarettes and reruns of 'Murder She Wrote.'"

But in this "High Fidelity," those moods never last long. Rob believes in the transformative power of playlists, and her life is always one great song away from turning around for good.

You know those movies that have been parodied, memed, and referenced so much that you feel like you've seen them–but you never have and, honestly, why would you bother?

You know that at the end of Taxi Driver Travis Bickle may or may not hallucinate a violent episode, and you've seen people dress up in Robert De Niro's utility jacket, black shades, and weird Roman soldier haircut at every Halloween party you've ever attended. You know that Scarface's Tony Montana screams, "Say hello to my little friend" while wearing a suit with giant lapels and holding a machine gun. How do you know this? No, you've never seen the movie; the fact is that the sheer masterpiece of a few key scenes capturing the climax of a film can overshadow the entire production. Sure, you want to sit down to watch them "one day," but you just never get around to it.

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"Joker" (2019)

In an interview with Anderson Cooper for 60 Minutes, Joaquin Phoenix and his family recently opened up about the death of his older brother, River, in the early morning of Halloween, 1993.

Seven years after his iconic role as Chris Chambers in Stand By Me, River was making a name for himself as more than just a talented child actor—starring in a slate of movies in the early '90s, including My Own Private Idaho alongside Keanu Reaves. But as America was getting to know him, he was apparently getting to know the dark depths of Hollywood in his private life. Joaquin and his older sister, Rain—along with Johnny Depp, John Frusciante, and a host of other young celebrities—were there at the infamous Viper Room nightclub when River overdosed at the age of 23. Joaquin was the one who called 911 while his older brother was seizing on the sidewalk outside. Rain sat on River's chest to contain his convulsions.

memorial outside the Viper Room The NY Post

It was a huge national story at the time. Joaquin Phoenix's frantic voice, pleading with a 911 operator to send help, was played repeatedly on TV news. Today, when he recalls helicopters hovering overhead and paparazzi trying to sneak onto their property in the aftermath, it's hard to imagine his claim that "it impeded on the mourning process" is anything but a vast understatement.

River's rising star in his final years far outshone the rest of his siblings' careers at the time. 19-year-old Joaquin was not nearly as well-known—having had some minor roles in TV shows and some smaller films—but River had taken him under his wing and begun mentoring him. He introduced Joaquin to Robert De Niro's performance as Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull and encouraged him to emulate the way subtle details can bring characters to life. According to Anderson Cooper's summary of their conversation, River saw Joaquin's talent before the world did, and he told him, "You're going to be a more successful actor than I am."

"Stand By Me" "Stand By Me" 1986

With the accolades that Joaquin has accumulated since, including the Golden Globe he won for Joker last week, and the announcement of his fourth Oscar nomination Monday morning, River's prediction could hardly have proven more correct. Yet with all the stories he's helped tell, there may be none as strange and fascinating as the real-life details of his family history.

The drama of River's death is the saddest and most familiar piece of the narrative, but the story really begins in 1968, when his mother, Arlyn Dunetz—who also goes by Heart—left New York for California. Like so many young people of that time, Arlyn was drawn to the counter-culture movement that had found its footing in San Francisco and spread out from there. It was there that she met her future husband, John Lee Bottom, and the two began traveling the coast together, picking fruit and vegetables for a living. River Bottom was born in 1970, and Rain in 1972. Much about this early era sounds idyllic, but it was around this time that the family joined a Christian sex cult.

David Berg with followers

The Children of God (currently known as the Family International) was founded by David Berg in 1968, and it was already a thriving international movement by 1972. Its foundations were in Christian apocalypticism, but Berg billed himself as the "last end-times prophet" and added more than a few of his own ideas to the belief system. The least upsetting aspect of his additions was the idea that sex is a beautiful and holy act. With that foundation to build on—the blend of Christianity with the free-love movement—Berg unfortunately abused his position to twist the role of sex within the community into something that served his perverse desires.

Perhaps the most famous of the Children of God's sexual practices was the use of "Flirty Fishing," wherein young female members would use sex to draw in new converts. Beyond that, Berg's edicts, distributed in so-called "Mo Letters," declared that incest is okay, that it is a woman's duty to participate in sex whenever a man wants it, and that children should learn about sex from a young age—both through demonstration and participation.

It was in 1974, while they traveled as missionaries for the cult—moving around South America and the Caribbean—that John and Arlyn had their third child, Joaquin Rafael Phoenix. They were living in Puerto Rico at the time, but they never stayed in one place for long. In 1977 the family left the Children of God, citing a disillusionment with many of these sexual practices, and with Berg's greed. They chose a new name for themselves—Phoenix—to mark this new beginning.

Phoenix Family If they ever make their family story into a movie, Joaquin could definitely play his father

Sadly, their escape from the Children of God was not too late to save their oldest child from trauma. According to an interview with River before his death, he said that he had "made love" at the age of four. He talks about blocking out a lot of experiences from that time, but when he became interested in sex again at the age of 14, his parents provided a tent where he and his girlfriend could have privacy.

There's no way of knowing how things might have turned out differently for River if his early years had provided more stability and less exposure to the world's darkness. He may have avoided addiction and death, but it's also likely that the world would never have heard of him or any of his siblings. It was while his parents were traveling missionaries, living in a rat-infested shack in Caracas, that he and his siblings learned to perform on the streets, passing out Children of God leaflets and collecting change.

Time is the Killer ft. Michael Stipe (piano version) (Rain Phoenix) [OFFICIAL MUSIC VIDEO] www.youtube.com

With very little provided by Berg's "church," the children fed themselves from what they could earn through busking. When the family eventually landed in Los Angeles and Arlyn got a job working for a casting director, the children's experience performing was directed toward careers in acting and music.

Whatever judgments we might make about the family's history—whatever blame we might want to lay on the parents—the surviving members of the family remain close. They appeared together in the 60 Minutes interview, discussing River's memory.

60 Minutes interview

In 2012, Arlyn Phoenix co-founded the River Phoenix Center for Peacebuilding to promote peace and sustainability around the world. It was the same year that Joaquin starred as Freddie Quell in The Master—an exploration of cults and addiction, and a thinly veiled critique of Scientology. Last month, Rain Phoenix released an album called River, inspired by the memory of her brother.