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John Cusack, unlikely hero – an introduction to Grosse Pointe Blank

Here’s the text of a talk I gave at ID Fest, Derby QUAD’s ‘hero’ themed film festival, on Saturday 26th May 2012.

Grosse Pointe Blank 1997 George Armitage John Cusack

Five years ago, I was lucky enough to be part of Thunderdome, a competition run by Empire magazine to find new writers – a sort of X Factor for film critics.  Every month the finalists were set writing tasks which the readers would vote on; one task was simply to write a feature called “Which Movie Star Am I?”

A horrible thing to have to write – whoever I chose, I’d come across as either incredibly arrogant or just plain weird.  In the end I picked up the Biographical Dictionary of Film and worked my way through from A to Z to find the right person… except I didn’t get as far as D, because as soon as I saw John Cusack’s name, I knew that’s who I wanted to represent my interests in the competition.  We share the same taste in movies and music and politics, and I love the fact that, although he’s a superb actor and an ambitious producer, he’s not quite a star.  Perfect, because I wasn’t quite a writer. 

And it’s those same qualities that I think make Cusack the perfect choice to be part of ID Fest this weekend, with its theme of heroes.  Cusack is a hero of independence, an actor who at his peak kept his cool by choosing offbeat projects that reflected his own values.  In retrospect, Grosse Pointe Blank – a film of effortless charm and genre-bending cool that Cusack co-wrote, produced and starred in – is the centrepiece of his career.

But let’s rewind.  Cusack made his name in the 1980s as a teen hero with two of that decade’s greatest teenage characters – Walter Gibson in The Sure Thing and Lloyd Dobler in Say Anything.  Unlike many of his peers, he was the right age: only 18 when he shot The Sure Thing.  But he was also blessed with enough world-weariness and old-fashioned romance to avoid coming across as pampered and arrogant, like many stars of that decade.

And where so many of the Brat Pack floundered in the 1990s, Cusack continued to pick out interesting movies, from The Grifters to Woody Allen’s Bullets Over Broadway.  He held stardom at bay and carved out his own niche – and then, in 1997, he took a supporting role in Nic Cage blockbuster Con Air.  Had Cusack sold out? Not at all: in fact, he was using the blockbuster paycheque to help finance a little movie he’d concocted with his writing partners Steve Pink and D.V. DeVincentis, friends of Cusack’s since childhood.

The pick ‘n’ mix postmodern culture of the 1990s threw up some novel juxtapositions, but perhaps none cleverer than Grosse Pointe Blank’s blend of rom-com and thriller. It’s arguably the best date movie ever devised, with sharp-suited gunplay for boys and synth-pop tinged nostalgia for girls, and it really delivers on its irresistible pitch, about a hitman attending his high-school reunion.

Cusack’s ambition shows through in the film’s lighted sketched politics.  By 1997, everybody was copying Quentin Tarantino by making flippant black comedies, but Grosse Pointe Blank looks beyond the fashionable and superficial.  In many ways, the film is a retort to Tarantino: it’s hugely symbolic that a Pulp Fiction cut-out gets blasted away at one point.  This was the decade of Generation X and Cusack satirises slacker culture by having Blank continually deny responsibility for his actions.  Listen out for how many times he insists, “It’s not me!”

The inspired use of the 1980s high-school movie really adds weight to the film.  It’s an unofficial sequel to all those Brat Pack comedies that Cusack used to make, but it turns the aspirational message of those movies on its head.  Blank’s classmates are all stuck in dull jobs, parental hell or alcoholism. The only person who has done well is Blank, the one with the (literally) mercenary instinct – the ironic detachment and nihilism of the 1990s is shown to be the direct result of the 1980s and its ‘me me me’ private enterprise politics.

If this is starting to make Grosse Pointe Blank sound like a Ken Loach film, fear not – because the satire is sweetened by a genuinely charming central romance.  In plot terms, Cusack’s hitman 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 has to swap Tarantino for rom-coms and find a happy ending.  That’s when you realise: no other actor could pull off this character.  He looks the part as a hitman, and has a tremendous martial arts scrap in a school corridor, but there’s enough geeky likeability to make Blank’s spiritual crisis endearing. Cusack’s scenes of rekindled puppy love with old flame Minnie Driver are coy and flirtatious, and there is real pleasure in seeing him rediscover his own inner child.

Yes, the film is directed by George Armitage, but Cusack owns the film. The soundtrack is pure Cusack (he’s a big fan of The Clash and 1980s indie) and he casts his sister Joan as Blank’s no-nonsense secretary, and best mate Jeremy Piven (nowadays a star in his own right thanks to TV show Entourage) as an annoying ex-classmate.

The film marked a watershed, and Cusack rode the wave.  The five years after Grosse Pointe Blank cemented him as a hipster hero, thanks to Pushing Tin, Being John Malkovich and especially High Fidelity, practically an on-screen manifesto for his style of self-effacing stardom, wry romance and love of great music. 

And then he made Max – the story of an art dealer’s friendship with the young Adolf Hitler (Cusack played the art dealer, not Hitler).  It was a project that many in Hollywood wouldn’t touch, but typical of Cusack’s interest in the leftfield.  Unfortunately, it seemed to mark the end of Cusack’s Golden Age.  Subsequent projects as a producer have faltered.  Both Grace Is Gone, in which he played the widower of an army soldier killed in Iraq, and War, Inc. (a sort-of sequel to Grosse Pointe Blank about the arms trade) went straight to DVD in Britain.

He’s more noticeable now for the rare occasions he can be seen slumming it in studio movies like 2012 or The Raven. Unlike his peers Brad Pitt and George Clooney, he’s failed to capitalise on the middle-ground.  Those guys make innovative movies financed by major studios and are rewarded with critical acclaim and box-office clout. 

In contrast, because he doesn’t play the game, Cusack’s career looks fractured.  His passion remained undimmed – he was a regular blogger at the Huffington Post for many years – but on-screen something has changed.  In its latest movie, The Paperboy, which premiered at Cannes last week, he plays a Death Row prisoner in a performance described by the Guardian as “horribly sleazy and bloated.”

I guess the moral of this story is that sometimes heroes let us down – and on the evidence of the past few years, were I doing Thunderdome today, I probably wouldn’t pick John Cusack again.  But I still have faith.  There’s still plenty of time for my movie star Doppelganger to make a comeback: unbelievably, Cusack is still only 45 years old.  And we’ll always have Grosse Pointe Blank, the moment when a geeky, romantic, ass-kicking hitman defined Hollywood cool.

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