Tom Jolliffe looks at the two films that most typify John Cusack’s qualities, Grosse Pointe Blank and High Fidelity…
Top five John Cusack films? Well, Say Anything has got to be there. Perhaps the thoroughly underrated Grifters? What else? Being John Malkovich has got to be in the running too. During Cusack’s rising years in coming of age/teen films he became known for a certain boyish charm, and unique character. He wasn’t particularly nerdy, not really the bad boy. Even when he’d delve into some of those personas, there was a certain uniqueness to his style. Later in the 90’s, coming into the early 00’s, Cusack found himself becoming a popular leading man. He wasn’t the Tom Cruise superstar, or Brad Pitt example of male perfection. He could play, with a certain cool, a kind of everyman. He had foibles, some neuroses, and a gift for genre hopping.
Two films in particular would prove perfect platforms for everything Cusack does well. Additionally, there was a distinct input that also suggested a good sideline as an accomplished screenwriter. His part in these two films, as a co-writer, alongside Steve Pink, gave High Fidelity and Grosse Pointe Blank an inimitable stamp of Cusack. Grosse Pointe Blank also counted Tom Jankiewicz and D.V DeVicentis as writers, whilst High Fidelity also counted DeVicentis again, as well as Scott Rosenberg. A consistency between the two films suggests a significant input from Cusack and a carefully selected team around him. After all, both films are perfectly tailored star vehicles that share a similar sharp humour, witty dialogue and Cusack’s ability to burst between moments of restraint, neuroses, and into bursts of emotional outpouring or physical action (from largely inaction).
Grosse Pointe Blank begins with a great concept. A jaded hitman reluctantly returns to the home town he disappeared from 10 years previously, to attend his high school reunion (and reconnect with the girl he left behind). Meanwhile, he has people to kill, the FBI and rival assassins on his tail and another rival intent on making Martin Blank (Cusack) join an Assassins union. Grosse Pointe Blank beautifully blends dark comedy, bristling dialogue scenes, clever observations, with some pathos and some brilliant action scenes. Here-in lies the first strength, and (at the time) biggest surprise…John Cusack has action cred. He never particularly delved headlong into the genre until a descent into straight to video in the last decade, but Cusack, skilled in kickboxing and having trained for decades under uber badass Benny ‘The Jet’ Urquidez, knows his stuff. This film allowed him to show that side and also had significant nods to an undoubted enjoyment of John Woo films. Minus the overt comedy, Martin Blank has almost stepped right out of a Woo picture. Cusack throws himself into several gunplay sequences, but the film’s action highlight is undoubtedly his mano-a-mano duel with the aforementioned Benny ‘The Jet’ who appears as a hitman on Blank’s tail.
The cast is superb. Dan Aykroyd in particular is fantastic as one of Blanks ‘friendly’ rivals. Whether it was written with him in mind, who knows, but the rapid fire dialogue, laced with blunt crudity, sounds perfect delivered by Aykroyd. Jeremy Piven is also memorable as Blank’s old high school buddy (10 years…10 YEARS!!) Sister Joan also appears as Blank’s secretary. She is atypically great (there’s also another cameo from Ann Cusack, one of the lesser known siblings, who makes an impression). Alan Arkin is on fine form (when isn’t he?) as Blank’s reluctant psychiatrist. Then there’s Minnie Driver. She’s superb, and further proof that an actress perennially underrated and unappreciated, is capable of delivering effervescent likeability with ease. The film then packages everything with solid direction from George Armitage and slaps down a supreme soundtrack of songs (and some Joe Strummer score in addition too).
With an enjoyable cult film in the bag to add to several other iconic cinematic moments (the boom box serenade in Say Anything for example), Cusack ends the century with Being John Malkovich, a quirky vehicle crafted by Spike Jonze, that suited Cusack to a tee. In 2000, Cusack’s second creative expression in a few years then arrived…High Fidelity. Momentum was high, his stock was at its highest. The source material (a Nick Hornby book) is transferred from London to Chicago, but Rob remains a slightly immature, commitment-phobic record store owner who’s just been dumped. Rob goes through an existential crisis and a retrospective look back over his top five relationships (all of which ended in separation). Here, Cusack continually breaks the fourth wall with confessional, slightly neurotic ramblings of self doubt.
Rob’s search for some reason and meaning is engaging, in a film that deftly balances its tones. Exchange the action of Blank, with added relationship focus and more drama, and High Fidelity manages to include some great moments of pathos as well as heart warming moments too. Cusack’s character is as regular as they come, and with that, has a realistic list of flaws. He’s a character who has drifted into routine and boredom. He’s lost a verve to create or ambition to do more. He can’t commit because there’s always lingering doubt and immature fantasy in the back of his mind, and he can’t comprehend why Laura (the attorney who has just dumped him) needed to leave. Whilst the film might drift into some predictable romance tropes, it always feels engaging thanks to the sharp humour and the excellent performances.
Cusack is joined by an all-star cast of ex girlfriends, including Lisa Bonet, Lili Taylor and Catherine Zeta-Jones. Danish actress Iben Hjejle is excellent as Laura, and the film manages to never paint her as a villain, or a pedestalled image of girlfriend perfection that Rob can’t be without. She’s complicated and she has the starkest emotional moments of the film. As good as everyone is though, the film is stolen at a canter by Jack Black. For Cusack, the film came at the height of his star power, a run that put him in the A-list for several years and kept him there as a solidly reliable leading man. For Black, this was the one which launched him as a headliner. He became almost immediately more prominent in the comedy genre and a few years later would cement that status with School of Rock. Additionally, much like GPB, High Fidelity has a sensational soundtrack, but in a film about a top five obsessed record shop owner, you’d expect nothing less.
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Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out on DVD/VOD around the world and several releases due out in 2021/2022, including, Renegades (Lee Majors, Danny Trejo, Michael Pare, Tiny Lister, Nick Moran, Patsy Kensit, Ian Ogilvy and Billy Murray), Crackdown, When Darkness Falls and War of The Worlds: The Attack (Vincent Regan). Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see here.