Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Films of John Cusack

He's not a megastar. He doesn't have the classic good looks of a George Clooney or the only megastar of his generation - Tom Cruise. When you think of him, you don't think of the acting talents of his contemporaries Nicolas Cage and Forest Whitaker. John Cusack is a movie star who came to prominence in the 80s and is, in many ways, defined by that decade. He's one of the few actors of his generation whose star shone brightly twenty-five years ago and continues to have success today. In addition to Cruise, Cage and Whitaker (who was mostly a utility player and not a star until his Oscar win a few years back) there's Matt Dillon and Matthew Broderick who date from that period. Neither of them works as often in feature films as Cusack continues to.

I've always admired Cusack. Maybe because as a kid I used to love watching Better Off Dead whenever it was on TV. Maybe it's because I identified with certain aspects of Lloyd Dobbler in Say Anything.... I don't think much of it now (nor did I then really), but One Crazy Summer was a staple of my lazy Sunday repeat viewing as a young lad.


Into the late 80s and early 90s, he seems to have veered toward offbeat choices, playing a small-time con man in The Grifters and working with the great indie director John Sayles on Eight Men Out. Then he went on to play Woody Allen's alter ego in Bullets Over Broadway before starring in the bizarre and sometimes brilliant Being John Malkovich.

He's worked with some of the finest and most interesting directors in the business: Woody Allen; Terrence Malick; Clint Eastwood; Cameron Crowe; Stephen Frears; Alan Parker; Spike Jonze, Roland Joffe.

Whether he's playing the straight lawman to a bunch of scenery chewing hams in Con Air, any of his many romantic lead roles, or Roy Dillon, a noir anti-hero with a severe Oedipal complex, he endows all his characters with intensely likable affability. But that shouldn't be confused with always playing the nice guy. Cusack is rarely just milquetoast (if we can forgive him his sins in the year 2001 when both America's Sweethearts and Serendipity were released). He plays characters with a bit of an edge. Lloyd Dobbler is a genuinely nice young man who treats women respectfully. He's also a kickboxer. Martin Blank is a confused lost soul pining for the girl he abandoned ten years earlier. He's also a professional killer. Nick Falzone is a mild-mannered air traffic control operator with a penchant for jealously despising his new competition and cheating on his wife. Through all this he walks the fine line between a character who will be despised by audiences and one who will be accepted in spite of his faults.

From Lloyd Dobbler to Martin Blank in Grosse Pointe Blank and on to Rob Gordon in High Fidelity, we have in Cusack's work a trio of romantic leads with a bit of a dark side. Martin and Rob are even anti-heroes in a certain respect. Martin is a professional hit man while Rob is an egocentric music critic who thinks his taste is impeccably better than anyone else's. He's a deeply flawed character, which makes him more human, carrying a dark cloud over his head as he obsesses over his past romances and what went wrong and why. Now that I think about it, his Lane Meyer in Better Off Dead is the original John Cusack romantic lead with a dark side. Lane loses his beautiful prom queen girlfriend and tries to kill himself, but repeatedly fails, while falling for the French foreign exchange student across the street. Talk about dark, Better Off Dead is a comedy about a high school student who tries to kill himself about a half dozen times!

Many of his characters carry a dark edge hovering over his shoulder. The Stephen Frears-directed The Grifters may be the darkest film he's made and his best all-out acting. Roy Dillon is on a road to nowhere, addicted to con games in ways he can't recognize. He's like an alcoholic who thinks he can stop drinking whenever he wants. Noir anti-hero roles are often reserved for tough guys or all-American types. Cusack brought a unique quality to Roy - he's world-weary but without the necessary tools to handle his gift.

Although he was the straight man to a cast of zany comedians in One Crazy Summer, he has demonstrated a knack for a bit of comedy himself, evidenced in Bullets Over Broadway, where he does a laudable Woody Allen. Although even there, Chazz Palminteri and Jennifer Tilly get most of the laughs. David Shayne is more the brilliant but tortured artist, much like his Chuck Schwartz in Being John Malkovich.

The last decade has seen Cusack occasionally veer toward more commercial fare like the aforementioned disasters in 2001. Then he had the risible 2012 two years ago. I suppose there's some value beyond just a pay day in doing a film like that. Maybe it's good fun to go out there and play in a film where the world is falling apart and the most important acting direction you have to follow is, "Hit your mark and then look worried." Perhaps Hot Tub Time Machine looked much better on paper. The title certainly suggests something kind of amusing and weird, but the final product must have been a real disappointment.

Peppered throughout the last ten years have been a handful of indie projects like Max in which he plays a Jewish art dealer who mentors a young Adolf Hitler in pre-Nazi Germany and Grace Is Gone where he plays the widowed husband of a soldier killed in Iraq. That film got him his first real talk of a possible Oscar nomination, but it wasn't widely enough seen to be a real contender. Anyway, Cusack isn't the kind of showy actor who gets award nominations. I wouldn't be surprised for him to work steadily for the next 40 years and never get an Academy Award nod.

I got a little excited when I saw that next year we can expect to see him playing Edgar Allan Poe in The Raven. "Wonderful!" I thought. Poe is the ultimate tortured American artist. What a complex and dark character for Cusack to play. This could be his magnum opus, the one that really earns him critical praise. But instead of a biographical picture, it's a fictionalized account of a criminal who tantalizes Poe with murders based on his tales. It sounds to me like a cheap ripoff of Matthew Pearl's The Dante Club. I'm not anticipating much.

For no particularly good reason except that I recently re-watched two of the three Cusack movies I have on DVD (plus a third from the public library), I've decided to make this John Cusack week here at Mostly Movies. I will be posting reviews of some of his films over the next two weeks. So please check back.

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