Dear John Cusack,
Happy birthday! Forty-five candles to blow out on June 28. You've given us so much movie joy over the past quarter-century that we'd like to mark this milestone with a small gift of our own.
It's a piece of advice: Return to your strengths. Charm us again. Make us laugh.
After all, is it us, or have you been in a gloomy funk for the past, oh, six years or so? How come all your recent movies have been such downers? Where's the funny, sharp, charismatic, wily, cool Chicago striver that moviegoers fell in love with 25 years ago and followed eagerly for the first two decades of your career? Why do you seem to be perpetually trapped under your own personal rain cloud?
The O.C. (Original Cusack) came in two modes: dogged underachiever and slick hustler. In fact, there was a little of both in some of your most memorable characters, guys who weren't as sharp or successful as they imagined themselves to be, con men whose spiels were so convincing they fooled even themselves.
Working in those two modes, you gave us such memorable characters as road-tripper Gib Gibson in 'The Sure Thing,' jilted teen Lane Meyer in 'Better Off Dead,' aspiring cartoonist Hoops McCann in 'One Crazy Summer,' kickboxing dream date Lloyd Dobler in 'Say Anything,' small-time scam artist Roy Dillon in 'The Grifters,' treacherous political aspirant Peter Burton in 'True Colors,' streetwise money launderer Joey Coyle in 'Money for Nothing,' adulterous playwright David Shayne in 'Bullets Over Broadway,' morally conflicted politician Kevin Calhoun in 'City Hall,' lovesick assassin Martin Blank in 'Grosse Pointe Blank,' scoop-hungry journalist John Kelso in 'Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,' hotshot air traffic controller Nick Falzone in 'Pushing Tin,' lovelorn puppeteer Craig Schwartz in 'Being John Malkovich,' record store manager and obsessive listmaker Rob Gordon in 'High Fidelity,' Manhattan charmer Jonathan Trager in 'Serendipity,' video-gaming jury tamperer Nicholas Easter in 'Runaway Jury,' underappreciated boat builder Jake in 'Must Love Dogs,' and embezzling mob lawyer Charlie Arglist in 'The Ice Harvest.'
Maybe you got tired of playing inept scam artists and lovable losers, but instead of stretching, you've only further limited yourself. Lately, you have only one mode: grim. There's your grieving Iraq War widower in tearjerker 'Grace Is Gone,' the haunted hotel guest in horror flick '1408,' widower who adopts an emotionally disturbed boy in 'Martian Child,' hitman/war-profiteer in 'War, Inc.,' a dad facing the end of the world in '2012,' a sleuth investigating a friend's death who uncovers a political conspiracy in 'Shanghai' (yet to be released in the U.S.), and notoriously bleak author Edgar Allan Poe, who becomes a murder sleuth, in 'The Raven' (due in 2012, if the planet is still here).
Even the one comedy you've done recently, 'Hot Tub Time Machine,' came from a dark place, premised on the midlife crises of three middle-aged sad sacks, one of them suicidal. The movie's laughs reminded us how much simpler life seemed in 1986, which, not coincidentally, was when you were playing funny, fast-talking, teen romantic comedy heroes like Gib, Lane and Hoops.
True, your recent movies have made money, especially '2012,' which, at $166 million, was the biggest hit of your career. But c'mon, it was a Roland Emmerich movie -- people came for the disaster, not the actors. If it had been, say, Josh Lucas in the lead, do you think the movie would have been less of a hit?
As for your other recent films, 'War, Inc.' earned just $500,000, and 'Grace Is Gone' took in just $50,000. That's not a box office take, that's a rounding error. You can argue that these were worthy indie projects, art for art's sake, but if a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it ...
No one is saying you have to play Lloyd Dobler forever. Everyone has to grow up, even lovestruck kickboxers. But you're so good at romantic comedies, at dramas about quick-thinking hustlers, films built around your gifts instead of movies where you come on as a gun for hire -- why not do more of those? Why not keep cultivating a fan base that has been loyal to you for 25 years instead of seeing how much you can depress them with your glum seriousness?
You know the boombox scene, where Lloyd makes a quixotic gesture in order to win back Diane? (Well, of course you do. Duh.) This time, you're Diane, and your fans are the ones standing out in the cold. We want you back.
Follow Gary Susman on Twitter: @garysusman.