Pop Culture Item Consumed: John Cusack’s career, in response to an odd confluence of events:
1) Several weeks ago, a Pajiba commenter offered up the argument that John Cusack unfairly enjoys an unjustifiably good reputation in comparison to other actors, with the commenter referring specifically to Nicolas Cage. The argument was that, considering the overall quality of Cusack’s filmography, he is not in fact superior to actors like Cage, leading to the query of why people hold Cusack in such high regard. I disagree with the argument but appreciate its creativity; discussions like this are one of the main reasons Pajiba exists.
2) Not long after reading that comment thread, I read Sex, Drugs & Cocoa Puffs, Chuck Klosterman’s collection of pop culture essays, in one of which Klosterman opines that John Cusack ruined romantic love for an entire generation of people. Klosterman’s theory is that Lloyd Dobler, Cusack’s signature role in Say Anything, was so impossibly, perfectly attuned to the needs of the Diane Court character (Ione Sky) that legions of men and women feel that their relationships have failed when they can’t measure up. Men and women “measure our relationship against the prospect of fake love,” concludes Klosterman.
3) During the annual Boozehound holiday bender — seven days of steady drinking and catching up on all the movies I missed during the year — one of the premium movie channels force-fed Grosse Pointe Blank on a loop every night, resulting in (a) my watching all or part of it about five times, (b) reaching a number of conclusions about Cusack’s career, and (c) drunk-dialing Dustin in the middle of the night with an e-mail entitled “epiphany!”
Beverage Consumed: The B-2, a luscious concoction a friend and I dreamed up during a failed golf outing at the old Lincoln Park golf course in San Francisco. Some years ago, chased into the semi-abandoned clubhouse by a vicious blowing rainstorm, Jorge and I killed an afternoon and a bottle of Bushmills and a bottle of Bailey’s Irish Crème while watching obscure Division II basketball games and discussing our impending marriages. We initially named this fine potion “The Lincoln,” not only for the locale, but because the drink is big, luxurious, and powerful — the Continental of alcoholic beverages. Later we agreed that the B-2 is a more fitting name, representing the components’ initials as well as the notable fact that this mixture will bomb your ass back to the Stone Age. The B-2 is easy to prepare and occupies a secure position in the Cocktail Pantheon.
To make a B-2, have close at hand a bottle of good Irish whiskey and a bottle of Bailey’s. In a large tumbler pour equal portions of each over ice, in whatever amounts you are prepared to consume; two shots of each is a good place to start. Stir well. The B-2 offers the firey warmth of Irish whiskey wrapped in the velvety blanket of Bailey’s, resulting in a strong drink that can be tweaked in either direction, i.e., tempered with more Bailey’s or fired with more whiskey. Those cigarette-shaped cinnamon sticks make a great garnish but are entirely unnecessary. To complete the recipe, retire to the comfy sofa in the study, wrap your feet with the woobie, and watch the rain pound the windows. Fireplace and contemplative significant other optional but recommended.
(Note that Bailey’s contains dairy; if you’re lactose-intolerant like me, take whatever medicinal precautions you would use before eating a piece of pizza.)
Summary of Action: It’s no revelation that films like Grosse Pointe Blank turned John Cusack into an icon for my generation, but my first re-watching of that film in over ten years sent me on my way with a mission: to re-visit as many John Cusack films as possible over the ensuing weeks and figure out why he means so much to so many people, myself included. In the end, the focus narrowed to Cusack’s triumphant triumvirate of Say Anything, Grosse Pointe Blank, and High Fidelity. If you’re a man born between 1964 and 1976, there’s a good chance this triptych influenced your view of life, or at least colored the way in which you interact romantically. (Side note/question: Is this is a Thing White People Like? Were black or Latino or Asian teenagers influenced by Lloyd Dobler?)
Dealing with Klosterman’s argument first, not only do I disagree with Klosterman’s fundamental point, i.e., that Cusack betrayed us by creating an unattainable archetype for romance, I’ll take it the other way: Cusack is the romance messiah for the demographic slice that came of age with REM’s Document and Doug Coupland’s Generation X. Even as a young adult, I knew that Say Anything didn’t represent the absolute reality of relationships — hell, my parents’ marriage and my first kiss in junior high (followed by the girl’s piercing laughter) taught me that. Guess what else? When I see two knuckleheads fighting outside a bar, I don’t take my behavioral cues from the Bruce Willis ouevre.
That said, as someone on the elder edge of the demographic group involved, I was heavily impacted by Say Anything, strongly identifying with that adult-trapped-in-an-adolescent’s-body ennui infecting Lloyd Dobler and Diane Court. “I have glimpsed our future. And all I can say is…..go back,” Diane tells their graduating high school class. As an early 20-something, I recognized and recalled with crystal clarity every emotion, every misgiving, every breathless hope Lloyd (and Diane) went through, from the loner outcast’s pessimistic resignation that the beautiful, smart girl won’t give him the time of day, to the lung-squeezing dare of asking her anyway, to the heroin-like high of fumbling through their first sexual encounter, to the soul-crushing despair of her rejection. Redemption? Maybe another time.
What no one could know at the time was that Say Anything represented the first major piece in Cusack’s life work of epitomizing men’s internal struggles, portraying the inner and outer battles to find a sense of self and defy the arbitrary orders laid down by Fate, or destiny, or random chance. Three of Cusack’s films represent this struggle in a two-decade commentary on the growth of a man from his adolescence into true adulthood.
Say Anything: This was the film that put Cusack on the map. Plenty of smart-assey teens knew who Lane Meyer was, but Lloyd Dobler re-defined the self-aware underachiever for a much larger audience with a weary teen on the cusp of adulthood, confronted with “things way beyond my maturity level,” to borrow from Juno McGuff. I’ve heard a theory that 90 percent of high schoolers are convinced they’re outcast losers, even many who are successful or popular, and the popularity of Say Anything seemed to bear that out. Lloyd Dobler closely resembles almost no one person I remember, but there are bits and pieces of him in nearly everyone I remember.
Defining Moment: Not exactly a revelation here, either; the boombox/stalker scene is probably as familiar an image to 40-year-old Americans as Sonny Corleone buying the farm at the toll plaza or Travis Bickle rolling through the Manhattan nightscape. Beyond the iconic image, however, director Cameron Crowe subversively relied on a relatively obscure Peter Gabriel song to carry the water in this scene, enhancing the outcast theme. (Interestingly, Nicholas Cage had a similar but forgettable scene in Valley Girl six years earlier. There’s a reason no one remembers it.)
So much has been written about Say Anything that there can’t be much left to add, but for any young, self-aware outsider who aspired to a love the world told him was simply not realistic, this movie laid down a manifesto, not of empty, candy-colored hope, but of pragmatic optimism. “Stick to your guns,” Lloyd Dobler might advise. “The prom queen isn’t the one you wanted anyway. You want the one who sees the value in you that others ignore.”
Another resonant message from Say Anything, in particular its improbable ending, is the recognition that everything we felt during our teenage years was just as real, just as important, as what we feel as adults. So much happens there that we carry forward, intense events that inform our later actions. Parents constantly make the mistake of lecturing teenagers that “You don’t know what love is — you’re only [14 or 16 or whatever]. You’ll look back and realize you were too young to be in love.”
Don’t we all know that’s bullshit? Love is a feeling. If you felt it, it was real. My first intense romantic love happened when I was a senior in high school, and for eight months it felt perfect. She was the first girl I had sex with, we saw each other nearly every day, and I changed my college plans because of her. Then, after graduation, I inadvertently discovered that she had betrayed me with a mutual friend. As I reminisce about that right here, right now, in this place and moment over two decades later, it feels just as strong, just as wonderful, just as hurtful. Not only was it real, it formed my wariness about relationships to some degree, and when my first marriage went south, the scars of that first betrayal made it easier for me to make tough decisions and do what was right for me. For many people, John Cusack made it okay to recognize that those adolescent experiences were as important or more so than ones that came later.
Grosse Pointe Blank: Cusack’s cult hit about a professional killer returning to Michigan for his ten-year high school reunion is a much better film than I remembered. I saw it the day it opened in 1997 and felt distinct disappointment that it wasn’t the Pulp Fiction/The Breakfast Club mashup I expected. GPB had other things on its mind, however, specifically a fantastical contemplation of how the slings and arrows of adolescence can lead to a pointless nihilism, hijacking what should be the most enjoyable time of a person’s life. We don’t know how plugged in Cusack’s Martin Blank was in high school — he appears friendly with many of his former classmates but firmly disconnected from the jocks and cheerleaders — but nearly every 28-year-old he encounters on his prodigal weekend, no matter how popular or successful they were before, occupies a private purgatory of some sort.
Defining Moment: In a transcendent scene loaded with symbolism and undercurrent, an old acquaintance sees Cusack at the reunion and asks him to hold her tiny baby for a moment. Cusack reluctantly accepts, awkwardly grasping the infant under its arms while it stares at him. The devastating crescendo of Queen’s and David Bowie’s “Under Pressure” swells in the background while Cusack stares into that baby’s eyes. As it smiles back at him, Cusack gives a perfect look of stunned realization as he connects with innocence, connects with his own unfulfilled promise, and leaves behind the juvenile nihilism that not only infected and discolored an entire decade of his life but cheated him of his true love.
Much of the film rides on over-the-top absurdism, with Cusack repeatedly confronting rival hitmen and fencing with the government agents stalking him, but the gun battles and cloak-and-dagger antics are far more consistent with the absurdist humor of Better Off Dead than the stylized surrealism of Pulp Fiction. The hijinks provide a buoyant context for the more serious themes, and as with Say Anything, Cusack’s emotional development in this film depends on accepting that young love is just as real as anything else and well worth going back for, figuratively if not literally.
An easy criticism would be that it’s a fantasy to think that going back to retrieve one’s high school sweetheart is a cure for wounds to the soul, a panacea for the disappointments discovered as a young adult leaving high school and seeing how the world really is. That’s a simplistic read on the film, however, as the Minnie Driver love interest is really a stand-in for an idea. (Minnie is 100 percent wrong for the role, but she gives a game performance and has a few great lines.) Adults too often look for happiness in a concept of what they think they should be looking for, as opposed to what actually gave them the most happiness in some long-ago place. Grosse Pointe Blank doesn’t suggest that your childhood sweetheart is actually there, waiting to pluck you from the depressing reality that the world isn’t perfect. But that girl is actually out there, somewhere, in someone else’s body. The love you felt then is still inside you somewhere, too, and facing reality means facing the good as well as the bad.
High Fidelity: As Cusack moved into his thirties, he physically matured and lost Lloyd Dobler’s boyish intensity to some degree, and the result was a perfect meeting of actor and role. I detested the idea of relocating Nick Hornby’s ridiculously awesome novel to an American locale, but the results cannot be argued. High Fidelity was such a perfect realization of romance and comedy that it’s an insult to even categorize it in that way, and a huge part of that success was Cusack’s ability to project the self-destructive malaise of a man clinging to the habits of a boy. A 35-year-old man isn’t exactly down to his last bullet, but he’s often either at or approaching a crossroads over how he will choose to spend his vital adult years — trying to re-capture something he never really had or grappling with the challenges of building a real life with someone who actually cares about him.
Defining Moment: Rob and Laura’s achingly practical sex-and-conversation in the car after the funeral for Laura’s father; it feels so desperate I can hardly bear to watch it, while at the same time it captures the essence of how 30-somethings often learn the truth about real love. Cusack spends most of the film obsessively tracing the path of passionate love, despairing over the way the fire sputters and banks in even the best relationships. And then Laura teaches him the lesson, the reality: The passion will be there as a sometime companion, but what makes it possible to get out of bed every morning is the sustained faith and support of the person who loves you the most and annoys you the least.
There are also some important messages in High Fidelity about either realizing how good you’ve got it or, if that’s not true, going out and finding what made you happy once before. In Grosse Pointe Blank it was feeling a certain way about a certain person; High Fidelity modernizes the old saw that doing something you love is never a “job.” And again, the film delivers on the theme that those old flames of childhood really matter, regardless of what people say, though the twist is that Cusack cannot appreciate what he has until he considers what he left (or what left him). Rob spends much of the film teasing out the painful memories of his “Top Five Breakups of All Time,” going all the way back to elementary school. There’s massive black humor in how selfishly he goes about it, gleefully seizing vindication from the realization that most of his breakups had virtually nothing to do with who he was and everything to do with the random circumstances of how he fell into those relationships. But in the end, fulfilling the arc that began in high school with Say Anything, Cusack defines what closing in on 40 meant for many of us, coming to terms with the choices he made and the ones still available to him.
* * * * *
These three films alone amply justify the high regard in which Cusack is held, not that Cusack’s overall filmography needs much defending. That’s one of the reasons, though hardly the only reason, that the Nicholas Cage comparison fails.
Cusack and Cage both began their careers as bit players in successful teen sex comedies; Cusack in Class and Sixteen Candles and Cage in Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Valley Girl. Both quickly graduated to leading roles, and both found early success in offbeat comedies (Better Off Dead, Raising Arizona) and unusual dramas (Eight Men Out, Birdy). Both have had artistic successes (The Grifters, Wild at Heart) and resounding failures (The Road to Wellville, Amos & Andrew), though Cage’s lifetime box office is probably five or six times that of Cusack. They even made a film together, Con Air, a movie that points up the stylistic gulf between them as well as anything could. Cage has been nominated for two Oscars, winning for Leaving Las Vegas, and that may lead to the real reason that Cusack continued to resonate with his core constituency while Cage unraveled into a nerve-grating caricature — because Cage gained the power to direct himself in every movie he was in.
Throughout his career, Cusack has retained his affable, adaptable regular-guy presence — even in his more bizarre turns, such as Being John Malkovich, Cusack provides the cognitive backboard rebounding the conceptual ball to the viewer. In contrast, Cage is showy, a spectacle; even at his most restrained he’s more a collection of tics and quirks than an actor. This worked well when he showed good judgment in selecting projects, such as the 1987 duo of Moonstruck and Raising Arizona, both of which showcased his oddities in stylized films featuring talented ensemble casts, particularly with strong female leads to dampen Cage’s reverb. Likewise, when Cage can be bothered to dial down the schtick, he can shine in straight dramatic roles like Leaving Las Vegas and Lord of War.
Where the primary separation occurs is over the last ten years, during which time Cage has delivered a series of spectacularly misguided lead performances based entirely on the worst and most pronounced aspects of his identity. It’s only during that time that Cage’s reputation has slid into the shitter like an over-ripe burrito after a six-pack of Schaefer. Cusack and Cage both had their share of ups and downs prior to 1998, but the dichotomy of how they are currently viewed is colored primarily by Cage’s recent flame-outs juxtaposed against Cusack’s general refusal to completely crap all over the goodwill he built up earlier.
Here are Cage’s leading roles from the past decade, with the first group containing films I would consider successes, i.e., genuinely decent-or-better movies, and the second group featuring failures, i.e., bad films regardless of commercial success:
Bringing Out the Dead
Lord of War
Standing alone, that’s not a bad list, with a few good efforts including the unfairly maligned Matchstick Men with Sam Rockwell. But check this out:
City of Angels
Gone in Sixty Seconds
The Family Man
A Christmas Carol
Captain Corelli’s Mandolin
The Weather Man
World Trade Center
National Treasure 2
Jesus water-skiing Christ, that is a hippo’s ass full of bad movies, and I feel pretty safe in saying that Cusack has never taken a grungy hangover shit on the audience like Cage did in Ghost Rider. That may be the distinguishing feature of Cage’s recent career: the number of irredeemable shitbombs he’s dropped on noncombatant civilians. Let’s look at the same period for Cusack:
The Jack Bull
The Thin Red Line
Being John Malkovich
The Ice Harvest
Grace Is Gone
Must Love Dogs
I wouldn’t have predicted that Cusack was nearly as prolific as Cage during the same period, with 17 non-animated lead roles compared to Cage’s 19. Cusack’s collection here is nothing to be overly proud of, as well-reviewed films like Runaway Jury and Pushing Tin succeeded as passable mainstream entertainment, not notable cinema. But as bad as Must Love Dogs, Serendipity, and War, Inc. were — and make no mistake, they stank on ice — they’re not in the same Galaxy Of Fail as Ghost Rider, Wicker Man, and Bangkok Dangerous, three of the worst studio films of the past ten years. Cusack’s lesser efforts more routinely qualify as mediocre, and the middle of his career has turned into a mainstream working-actor series of okay-to-good films. I understand that we’re dealing in heavily subjective analysis here, but aside from becoming a ludicrous self-parody in his “acting,” Cage regularly knocks out films scoring under 40% over at Rotten Tomatoes. More to the point, he routinely — routinely — turns out vomitous retch-bags of epic proportions.
And don’t get me started on that fucking hair.
Maybe Cusack is coasting on his icon status, but frankly I’m okay with that. He’s still making the effort to appear in imaginative or unusual pictures like 1408, which wasn’t The Shining but was still creative and scary. The bottom line, however, is that Cage has never, ever made a film that reached inside my brain like Say Anything or High Fidelity, movies that made me want to stand up and cheer because I felt like Cusack was representing me, saying what I want to say, being who I feel like I am or could be. Cage is a fucking alien; Cusack will always be the sympathetic older brother from Stand By Me.
How well the pairing held up: Pretty damn well; that boy got the fire inside and a soft way to deliver it.
Tastes like: Two parts Ione Sky’s lush fullness; two parts Iben Hjejle’s golden, icy fire. Mix well, and make sure the camera is rolling.
Overall rating: Seven out of seven Doblers.
Ted Boynton is a dedicated sot who plans to leave his barstool to stalk Whit Stillman, now that someone has found Whit Stillman. Ted also manages to hold down a job and a wife, three hours each per day, whether they need it or not. Readers may scold, hector, admonish or taunt Ted by e-mailing him at email@example.com.
Boozehound Cinephile | January 29, 2009 | Comments ()