Film Of The Day: Grosse Pointe Blank (1997)

July 14, 2010 by Simon Kinnear in Retro with 0 Comments

On Sky Movies something-or-other tonight (you all have Sky Movies, right?), as if you need an excuse to watch this fine film…

Usual caution applies: mild spoilers may lie ahead, although surely everyone’s seen this by now…

Grosse Pointe Blank
(George Armitage, US, 1997)

Ten years!* Cusack’s masterpiece is eligible for a reunion of its own, but a film that’s aged this well doesn’t need to attend

* Yes, I wrote this in 2007. Sue me.

90s pick ‘n’ mix culture threw up some novel juxtapositions, but perhaps none cleverer than Grosse Pointe Blank’s blend of rom-com and thriller. It’s not just that the something-for-everyone sensibility makes it a great date movie (sharp-suited gunplay for boys and synth-pop tinged nostalgia for girls) nor that the film actually delivers the laughs promised by its irresistible “hitman attends high-school reunion” pitch. What really distinguishes it from its contemporaries is the way that, for once, genre clash actually provides some substance.

The tone of flip, irreverent black comedy perfected by Quentin Tarantino was pretty much the default setting for the trendy mid-90s, but Grosse Pointe Blank survives accusations of facsimile because of its genuine attempt to look beyond such hip superficiality. In many ways, the film is a retort to Tarantino: it’s hugely symbolic that a Pulp Fiction cutout gets blasted away at one point. This is a film that directly satirises the era’s absence of responsibility (Blank repeatedly pleads that, “It’s not me!”), and its overt link between ennui and psychopathy probably explains the behaviour of half the movie characters who appeared on screen during the decade.

The canny use of the 80s (and especially its representation on screen) is central to this theme. The school reunion setting subliminally suggests a sequel to all those Brat Pack high school comedies, not least because John Cusack was one of the genre’s leading players. But this slyly turns the aspirational dogma of those movies on its head: Blank’s classmates are all stuck in dull jobs, motherhood hell or alcoholic fugue. In fact, the only person who has done well is the one with the (literally) mercenary instinct, making this one of the few films of the 90s to directly relate the ironic nihilism of the time to the solipsistic decade that preceded it.

That said, the satire isn’t as pitch black as, say, Heathers, and the film remains respectful towards its essentially sweet-natured roots by being entirely sincere about its romantic elements. The use of romantic comedy is a brilliant conceptual ploy for symbolising the central drama. In plot terms, Blank is in the wrong business, but in movie terms, he’s in the wrong genre. If he is going to grow up and move on with his life, he must swap Tarantino for Nora Ephron and find the happy ending that the bullets have always denied him. It’s here that having John Cusack as the lead pays off. He looks the part as a hitman – suave and agile, and effortlessly cool firing a gun – but there are probably half a dozen actors who could do the same. Few, however, could display enough geeky likeability to make Blank’s spiritual crisis endearing. Cusack’s scenes with Minnie Driver feel as coy and flirtatious as rekindled puppy love would be, and there is real pleasure in seeing him rediscover his own inner child.

Cusack’s polymath talents as star, co-writer and co-producer clearly make him the auteur of the piece, but that’s no reason to deny that it’s George Armitage who keeps the film’s many plates spinning. His sure grasp of the tonal richness of the film, moving from cheesy 80s dancing to brutal martial arts in the blink of an eye, makes it a pity that he never capitalised on his success here. Instead, Armitage’s name enhances the film’s credentials as a cult classic, not least because by some weird coincidence the cast largely comprises actors who share his last initial: Alan Arkin, Dan Ackroyd and Hank Azaria, the A-list of a parallel universe. Typically, though, the choicest roles are cast through Cusack’s trademark nepotism: sister Joan as Blank’s no-nonsense secretary and best mate Jeremy Piven as Blank’s annoying Ned Ryerson-esque schoolmate.

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