John Cusack would probably hate reading this; I'm told he's a fairly private person who hates dealing with the press. But I grew up with his films and have always considered him something like my cinematic alter ego. He and I are about the same age (OK, he's two years older), and his characters' concerns and discoveries have often mirrored my own, and I suspect I'm not alone in this. Cusack is very good at this "everyman" character, tapping into the secret self of an entire generation. He's kind of a nerd, but he's capable of tossing a football around. He's good looking, but never really fits in with the good-looking crowd. He's an average student, but still whip-smart. He's funny without ever seeming clownish. He's a loner, but sometimes has close friends. He's cool enough to play a crook, but sensitive enough to be tormented by his duties.
By parking all of these sliding scales somewhere near the middle, just about everyone can see a little of themselves in Cusack, or at least everyone of my generation. In high school, he was the perpetual goofy romantic, capable of falling more deeply and more passionately in love than anyone else around him, just as all of us were. It was easy to believe that he and his female co-star of the moment were absolutely destined to be together; he had chemistry with all of them. In Better Off Dead, The Sure Thing and Say Anything -- as well as the less accomplished One Crazy Summer -- he said the kind of funny things we all wish we could have said, and somehow got the girl to pay attention. During that same era, he proved his range by playing a benevolent older brother in Stand by Me (a football hero), a helpful Depression-era hobo in The Journey of Natty Gann, and a horny nerd in Sixteen Candles.
After high school, Cusack found his first grown-up role, in The Grifters (1990). He played Roy Dillon, a small-time con man who lives a successful, but lonely life. He performs strictly small time grifts, which are safer. (How many of us, after this movie, have paid for a drink holding a $10 bill folded over our middle finger?) Eventually Roy, his mother (Anjelica Huston) and girlfriend (Annette Bening) are all trying outfox one another. The two women (as well as director Stephen Frears and screenwriter Donald E. Westlake) received Oscar nominations, but Cusack did not, and has yet to earn a single nomination. It just goes to show how his effortless evasion might have come across as a lack of acting skill. In reality, he's less showy than his co-stars, and he allowed them to shine.
Over the years, he has made himself available for small roles and cameos in many movies (Broadcast News, Roadside Prophets, The Player, Shadows and Fog, etc.), and also in lead roles for very interesting directors and unusual projects: the more intelligent and offbeat the project, the better. He can be very hard to pin down; one year he's a die-hard romantic, another year he's a brilliant comedian, or perhaps a straight man in an otherwise screwy comedy, and yet another year he's doing something with a conscience. Among my favorites are Woody Allen's Bullets Over Broadway, in which he plays a troublesome playwright surrounded by gangsters and kooky actors (once again, everyone else but him received Oscar nominations). He romanced the director's daughter in Clint Eastwood's Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, and turned up for a small role in Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line. He seemed willing to look ridiculous as a tortured puppeteer in Spike Jonze's Being John Malkovich.
In recent years, his returns to the romantic comedy and the crime film have been met with suspicion from the critics. The wonderful Serendipity suffered from bad timing, released near 9/11, and was one of the unfortunate movies that had its images of the World Trade Center digitally erased so as not to upset customers. America's Sweethearts might have been something, but sunk too often into stupid toilet humor. Martian Child and Igor were odd attempts to appeal to younger audiences, and films like Runaway Jury, Must Love Dogs, The Ice Harvest, and 2012 just didn't work. However, 1408 is an outstanding Stephen King-inspired horror film, and I did enjoy Identity.
Cusack likes to work with friends, and for example, has appeared in six films with Tim Robbins and nine films with Jeremy Piven. He has worked twice with screenwriters Steve Pink and D.V. DeVincentis, and once more with Pink as his director. He seems to bring a little bit of his personality to each project, and usually manages to slip in references to things he likes, such as the movie Cool Hand Luke, or the book Love in the Time of Cholera, or music by the Clash. One of my favorite things about his role in Con Air was that he insisted on being the first action hero to wear sandals. A friend of mine insists that he manages to wear his long trenchcoat in just about every movie, in at least one scene. It's almost as if Cusack were the powerful director of his own films and career, rather than at the mercy of an ever-shifting Hollywood tide.
Now, onto the centerpiece films in Cusack's career. He has co-written and/or produced several of them himself, and they fall into two distinct categories. For a while, he did what he could to rebel against the Bush Administration and its many failures by making the odd pair of films Grace Is Gone and War, Inc. The former was an unusually tender film about a man widowed by the Iraq war, and the latter was a dark, funny -- though largely ignored -- satire of war as big business. (He was also involved in a third vaguely political, largely ignored film, Max, about the fledgling art career of Adolf Hitler.)
But the three key films for Cusack are the trilogy Grosse Pointe Blank, High Fidelity and Hot Tub Time Machine. Cusack co-wrote the first two and co-produced all three (Steve Pink was also involved with all three). All three are semi-critical looks back at the 1980s, retracing and re-considering the steps taken during those years. All three movies are about second chances, using our new maturity to re-assess opportunities that may have been squandered. It's hard to watch these movies and not think of Cusack's much loved high school heroes Lane Meyer, "Gib" Gibson and Lloyd Dobler. Certainly these movies are not as carefree as the earlier ones, but they do come with a very interesting combination of regret and hope. We may have screwed up once, but we can still do something about it.
Grosse Pointe Blank perhaps suffered due to its proximity to Pulp Fiction and a zillion other mid-1990s cool crime films; it took a little while longer to truly find its fan base. In it, Cusack plays a hitman who receives an assignment in his hometown during his ten-year high school reunion. He finds his old girlfriend (Minnie Driver), who now runs an all-80s radio show and holds a grudge against him for standing her up on prom night. Through a mixture of secret special training and goofball romance, he manages to satisfyingly sew things up in a collision of past and present.
Hot Tub Time Machine is a more obvious look at this theme, a little more lightweight than the others, and probably molded to look a feel a lot like last year's hit The Hangover, yet it works in exactly the same way. But if Hot Tub Time Machine relies too heavily on sex and booze jokes, and Grosse Pointe Blank is a little too cool (who of us could return to a high school reunion having successfully worked as a contract killer?), then High Fidelity is just right. This Cusack character, Rob Gordon, is more human than the others, stuck in a job that most of us might have, leading a life that most of us might be familiar with.
This movie looks back on Rob's past without the gimmicks of a high school reunion or a time machine. It very simply uses the idea of a list, a device to which I am likewise addicted. Rob has ranked the top five loves of his life, and is now wondering whether any of them might have been "the one." Very simply, he revisits all of them and discovers that, yes, his current girlfriend (Iben Hjejle) is the one he's supposed to be with. But there's more. The matter of his dead-end job in a record store must be resolved. It's a job that keeps him stuck in the past, and spending time talking and thinking about the work of others. It prevents him from actually moving forward or doing anything himself. The movie allows Rob to take a small step toward something new, but it is a step, and it matters.
Naysayers may argue that Cusack isn't much of an actor and that "he's always John Cusack." To many, he may be the fictional "Nick" from The Sure Thing: " 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!" But that's what makes Cusack so special. It's much harder to navigate a career like his, to find movie after movie after movie and still hang onto your personality and your soul. Who else would have thought to take Nick Hornby's book and change the location from London to Chicago (and hire a British director besides)? And by all available evidence, he is a great actor, quietly sharing the screen and holding his own with more flamboyant actors, and always perfectly melding into the material, even as he stands apart from it, observing it, commenting upon it, and trying to make it a little bit better.