Dear John

How Grosse Pointe Blank could have been better.

Grosse Pointe Blank
Directed by George Armitage
Hollywood Pictures

As we prepare for the coming wave of ‘80s retro, let’s take a moment to revisit one of that decade’s most characteristic film genres. I mean that blend of sugarcoated innocence and monstrous ambition with a soundtrack by Spandau Ballet: the high-school movie. Just think how many more comedies centered on high-school students a decade ago than do today. What stands out about these films is the degree to which their humor came from the interaction of a cross section of characters–from behavior, not just ironic riffs on pop culture. But the ‘80s high-school movie was also a fantasy populated by stock figures, and it’s interesting to see which actors have survived their stereotyping. Merry pranksters (Tom Cruise, Matthew Broderick), virgins (Jennifer Jason Leigh), and flaky dudes (Sean Penn) seem to have fared better than nervous tomboys (Molly Ringwald, Ally Sheedy) and geeks (Anthony Michael Hall). The case of the frighteningly popular blond boy is a tossup, with James Spader continuing to get work and Andrew McCarthy having all but vanished.

Then there’s John Cusack, who fits none of the above categories. During the ‘80s Cusack’s roles ranged widely, from a geek in Sixteen Candles (1984) to a smart aleck in The Sure Thing (1985) to a love-torn sensitive boy in Say Anything (1989). But Cusack did more than avoid typecasting. At exactly the moment when these last two inspired performances made him famous–they’re still what people think of when they think of Cusack–he bowed out of the whole commercial-youth-movie game. During the ‘90s, he’s returned to his roots in experimental Chicago theater. His recent film work has tended to involve prestigious directors and smaller roles in ensemble casts. He’s done period pieces, playing, for instance, the comically pedestrian jazz-age playwright in Woody Allen’s Bullets Over Broadway (1994). Even with contemporary material, he’s been drawn to off-center parts like the moral con artist in The Grifters (1990) or–a less successful creation–the idealistic Southern mayoral aide in City Hall (1996).

With Grosse Pointe Blank, which he co-wrote and co-produced, Cusack has his first real starring role in years, and he’s so good that he makes you wonder what other pleasures his diffidence might have stolen from us. He plays Martin Q. Blank, a hit man who grew up in the affluent Detroit suburb of Grosse Pointe. The back story is that as a teen-ager, Martin was happily in love with his classmate Debi (Minnie Driver); but, for some reason (the script skimps on motivation), he finished high school with a crushing sense of anomie. He skipped town on prom night, joined the military, and went on to work as a government assassin. Now he’s a successful free-lance killer, but as the movie opens, he’s finally beginning to wake up from this decade of moral amnesia. He takes his new qualms to a shrink (a nervous Alan Arkin who, in the film’s one really brilliant conceit, doesn’t want to treat this psychopath but is scared not to). In a vulnerable moment, Martin is persuaded by his assistant (Joan Cusack, John’s big sister) to attend his 10-year high-school reunion and take stock of his life.

First, Martin must win back Debi, who, luckily for him, is not only single 10 years after he abandoned her, but is also sitting in a highly visible storefront window for him to spot five minutes after he gets to town. Then he has to beat out the rival (Dan Akroyd) who threatens his status as No. 1 free-lance assassin, and–after proving his prowess–retire from the killing and re-enter decent society. The plot is as thin as a Kleenex, but Cusack’s performance is riveting. He is one of the few kid actors to have steadily improved with age. He now has a centered, grown-up charisma, and he’s shed his boyish habit of witty babble. He has almost infinite watchability. He’s handsome, but his Snow White complexion and his tiny, intelligent teardrop eyes are also interesting to look at–far more interesting than the mannequin symmetry of a Brad Pitt or a Johnny Depp. As a bonus: He looks suave in the killer’s all-black uniform, and his karate kick is so graceful that you want to send him to work with John Woo.

O n the other hand, Cusack also has to shoulder some responsibility for the jumbled, incoherent script. If Grosse Pointe Blank shows why he ought be a big star, the thinking girl’s heartthrob, its preening cleverness offers clues as to why he isn’t. Ever the stubborn Hollywood outsider, Cusack took a story by a Michigander, Tom Jankiewicz, and co-wrote the screenplay with friends from his high school in Illinois. The script is full of vague, cocksure thoughts, like an undisciplined student draft. Martin’s profession is clearly meant to symbolize American moral rot; Cusack has been quoted describing the movie as “a black comedy about the American Dream, that ‘win at all costs’ personality you see every day, the type we like to hold up as heroes.” A provocative idea, but it isn’t developed. Grosse Pointe Blank isn’t mediocre material served up in a mediocre way–it’s fresh material thoroughly botched by mishandling, like a charred filet mignon.

Here I have a conflict of interest to report. Besides being a longtime fan of Cusack’s, I happen to have attended Evanston Township High School in Evanston, Ill., at the same time that he did. I’d been looking forward to this film ever since I ran into one of his co-writers at our own 10th-year reunion summer before last. I was gratified to recognize some of Cusack’s friends: the guy who played the inept security guard (he’s balder than he used to be), the guy who played the drunk guy at the reunion (he had the locker next to mine sophomore year). There were insider allusions. If I’m not mistaken, the heroine’s last name, Newberry, belonged to a pair of cute, artistic Evanston sisters; and the bully is a thinly disguised (and inexplicably cruel) parody of another of my classmates, who I pray hasn’t seen this movie.

But this insiderness is exactly what’s wrong with the movie–it’s a string of jokes that only the writers and their clique understand. I blame Evanston. Cusack’s bios inevitably talk about Evanston’s locally famous Piven Theater Workshop, which in addition to John and Joan Cusack, also gave us Rosanna Arquette; Aidan Quinn; Jeremy Piven of The Larry SandersShow and Ellen; and Jeremy’s father, Bernard, who for years used to play “Uncle Ben” on the rice commercials. (I attended this school briefly, when I was 9 years old. I remember having had to move back and forth mechanically and shout “whoosh!” in my role as a washing machine.) The Pivens clearly give their students a rare confidence. They’re brilliant at teaching kids to improvise, and this yields inspired moments–like Joan Cusack inventing a phone conversation in which she’s trying to set up a hit and is interrupted via call waiting by her little daughter. But maybe the movie could use less improvisation. The actors click with each other, but not with us.

Could the insularity of Grosse Pointe Blank also have something to do with what it actually felt like to go to high school in the early ‘80s? Think back to all those movies with their rigid stereotypes, their awarding of a Porsche to the hero at the end. The real 1980s kid was terrified of this kind of pressure. But he didn’t have slacker irony to protect himself, or the Internet to connect him to like-minded kids. All he had were his buddies.

Sometimes Cusack still seems to be shouldering the burdens of that sensitive high-school kid. The other day I flipped on TheCharlie Rose Show, and there he was talking about how proud he was to have worked with all those independent directors and ensemble casts, praising his early theater training (“in Evanston, Illinois,” he emphasized, with the earnest pride of people from our hometown). Rose asked the standard Cusack interview question–why were you always so adamant about steering clear of the brat pack? Cusack’s answer–“Well, who would want to be part of that? Would you, Charlie?”—-sounded arrogant and defensive. To my surprise I found myself thinking, aw, give it up, John. You’ve done us all proud–now go be a star.

Whomdid you want as your date? Debi (Driver) with Martin (Cusack) (42 seconds):

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Hit man meets baby (49 seconds):

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“I freaked out; I joined the Army …”: Martin sums up his career path (54 seconds):

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