Sometimes I get an idea for a column and when I sit down to write it I find that there are no good examples to illustrate my point floating around in my less-than-400 screen domain. The topic currently burning in my brain requires a few films that are still playing in the upper reaches, so while I wait for them to tumble down to me, I've decided to write a few lines about actors I admire. The first name that pops up is John Cusack's, currently appearing in 1408 (218 screens). Though it's based on a Stephen King story and features some decent thrills and chills, it's the kind of one-man performance that runs the gamut and could earn Cusack his very first Oscar nomination.
It's odd to think of this veteran actor, a favorite for over 20 years, having never earned so much as a nomination. But then that factor also adds to Cusack's outlaw, outsider status. Cusack somehow managed to become an everyman to almost every man. He's a nerd, but he's not a hopeless nerd; he's unique enough to be cool at the same time. He's smart, but also appeals to jocks and dropouts. A typical Cusack character might be seen tossing a football around or failing a trigonometry quiz. Best of all, although he always has romantic troubles, he always has something cool to say to girls. At the same time, this interchangeable quality keeps him slightly on the edge; you can't ever pin him down
After a few small appearances in obligatory teen comedies, Cusack landed the lead in a trio of above average examples, the black, cartoonish Better Off Dead (1985), the sweet, Capra-esque The Sure Thing (1985) and Cameron Crowe's overwritten, but earnest Say Anything (1989). With these, he earned the hearts of teen romantics everywhere, both with his effortless chemistry with the opposite sex and his unique, clever, and witty way of getting them. Last year, I wanted to name my son Nick thanks to a monologue Cusack delivers in The Sure Thing: "Elliot? You're gonna name the kid Elliot? No, you can't name the kid Elliot. Elliot is a fat kid with glasses who eats paste. You're not gonna name the kid Elliot. You gotta give him a real name. Give him a name. Like Nick. Nick's a real name. Nick's your buddy. Nick's the kind of guy you can trust, the kind of guy you can drink a beer with, the kind of guy who doesn't mind if you puke in his car, Nick." (We didn't end up going with Nick, but we didn't use Elliot either.)
It wasn't long before Cusack grew up and sought adult roles. In The Grifters (1990), he used his slippery cool in his role as a con man -- and watched as all his co-stars earned Oscar nominations around him. But he retained that sense of everyman; any twenty-something that saw the movie secretly entertained the concept of abandoning everything and hitting the grift. In 1994, he starred in Woody Allen's Bullets Over Broadway and somehow became the most successful "Woody Allen character," besides Woody Allen, to date. (Once again, all his co-stars earned Oscar nominations.) In 1997, he pulled a triple-play, with Clint Eastwood's underrated Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, Jerry Bruckheimer's Con Air -- as the first and only action hero to wear sandals -- and Grosse Pointe Blank.
The latter showed a new side of Cusack, the writer. Co-written with his pals Tom Jankiewicz, D.V. DeVincentis and Steve Pink, the film also hinted at Cusack's loyalty and his privacy (he allegedly hates talking to reporters). He often surrounds himself with trusted friends, like Jeremy Piven and Tim Robbins, and includes tributes to his favorite songs, movies and books. The Grosse Pointe Blank soundtrack exploded with all kinds of 1980s music, but notably the Clash, of whom Cusack is an outspoken devotee (and also of Joe Strummer's second band, The Mescaleros). The movie Cool Hand Luke (1967) and the book Love in the Time of Cholera also get special mentions in Cusack movies.Cusack co-wrote the amazing High Fidelity (2000), with two of his three writing partners, spoke to every thirty-something nerd who ever collected anything, and introduced all of us to the Beta Band at the same time. Since then, he has been hit-and-miss, but hasn't everyone? I liked Serendipity (2001), a throwback to his teenage hopeless romantics, although most did not. The masterpiece The Thin Red Line was also in there, as was Being John Malkovich and the interesting films Cradle Will Rock and Identity. Some other films were interesting failures (Pushing Tin) or slightly less so (America's Sweethearts, The Ice Harvest, Must Love Dogs). And his upcoming Martian Child looks a bit goopy for my taste. Which brings us up to date. Cusack's burned-out, cynical writer in 1408 is the perfect Cusack character at this time; he's divorced, missing a daughter and desperately eager to believe in something that his younger self would have accepted with little trouble. That he might actually find that something gives hope to all of us male, nerdy, smart, collector guys.