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Movie Review: GROSSE POINTE BLANK and HIGH FIDELITY, and Furthering the Cult of John Cusack

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Part of me wishes that John Cusack quit making movies after the one-two punch of Grosse Pointe Blank and High Fidelity in 1997 and 2000, respectively.  It’s not that he’s a bad actor (he isn’t) or that he hasn’t made any good movies in the 2000 – 2012 period that followed (he has); it’s that together, the two films feel like a career summation: the ultimate distillation of the themes and obsessions that have made him such a vital actor.

Beginning with 1985’s Better Off Dead, Cusack gave audiences a new American heartthrob, one defined by his willingness to grow and feel, and in similarly wacky teen comedies like The Sure Thing, Hot Pursuit, and One Crazy Summer, we saw him shift screen masculinity from Steve McQueen to something more malleable, more porous.  The apex: 1989’s Say Anything.  As Lloyd Dobler, Cusack took this persona from the comedy realm into grand romance and the hearts of teenage girls everywhere.  Without the jokey hijinks of a Better Off Dead, Lloyd was sweet, lovable, and decent, and the resolution of Say Anything let Cusack’s iconoclastic puppy dog have the happy ending we knew he deserved – he and screen soul-mate Diane Court (Ione Skye) sailing into the unknown with open eyes, their love for one another the only bulwark necessary against life’s uncertainties.

Almost ten years later, Grosse Pointe Blank and High Fidelity ever so gently pulled back the curtain and revealed that fairy tale finish to be….bulls–t.  And it did that without negating the John Cusack persona well established in his 1985 – 1989 film period.

Martin Blank in Grosse Pointe Blank, Rob Gordon in High Fidelity: these guys could be Lloyd Dobler twenty years out.  They share the same emotional spectrum, the same restless energy, the same appealing neuroses that border on obsessive-compulsive.  They dig pop music and distrust authority and pride themselves on personal integrity, even when they find the world so confusing and unfair it makes them sick.

What Martin and Rob don’t have is Diane Court.

It makes all the difference.  Grosse Pointe Blank imagines a Lloyd Dobler who bailed on her before the relationship got a chance to get going.  Those of you familiar with Say Anything, picture this: it’s the key scene from the third act, where Diane confronts Lloyd at his kickboxing dojo to rekindle their relationship.  Say Anything has him falling back into her arms….but what if he didn’t?  What if, when faced with an emotional yearning far exceeding anything he’d ever known, Lloyd just couldn’t process it and ran screaming into the hills, never to be seen again?

That is, essentially, what Martin Blank does to his Diane Court, Debi Newberry (played by the lovely Minnie Driver).  From the moment they meet, they’re kindred spirits, riffing and weaving into each other’s lives like two halves of the same thought, and it freaks out Martin.  He abandons her on prom night, joins the army, and discovers that the same emotional flexibility that let him eschew true love also makes him a fearsome contract assassin.  Hell, the reason he finds himself back in Debi’s life is because (Spoiler Alert) someone has hired him to kill her father.

An extreme outcome, sure, but not out of the realm of possibility; Lloyd’s signature Say Anything moment has him announcing that he never wants to enter a vocation that forces him to “buy, process, or sell” anything, and if nothing else, a hired gun living on society’s fringes represents the ultimate rejection of the consumer society that Lloyd so passionately rejects (another neat Say Anything/Grosse Pointe Blank link: Lloyd’s affinity for kickboxing, which Martin Blank employs – to devastating effect – in a brutal throwdown against a rival hitman).

High Fidelity doesn’t posit a future near as severe (and we’re all the better for it – Cusack would return to the ironic killer role in 2008’s disappointing political satire War, Inc.), but it’s more depressing because it’s more grounded.  On some level, we accept Grosse Pointe Blank as a fantasy; its premise is high-concept (a hitman attends his 10-year high school reunion), and its violence is high camp (the end shootout plays like an OTT parody of action-movie tropes).  High Fidelity, on the other hand, doesn’t sugarcoat Cusack’s ennui so floridly; his Rob Gordon is just a dick, a charming and massively self-absorbed slacker who has let his own needs and his unrealistic romantic idealizations strand him in single-dom.

Rob is the realistic version of Lloyd – maybe he and Diane still go to Europe together, but it doesn’t last (a) he cheats on her, b) he loses interest in the relationship, c) she starts to think him too immature, d) all of the above), and Diane becomes the first in a long line of failed affairs.  Plus, while Lloyd’s neuroses might have been attractive at age nineteen, Rob’s pushing forty, and all the “quirks” that have deigned to keep him single seem….pathetic.  He runs a record store and frets over potential ways to organize his own personal collection (his best grouping: records listed by autobiographical importance.  A narcissist’s dream – making works of art conform specifically to how his life affects them).  Ladies – queue up.

So, in one corner, a murderer, and in the other, an indecisive man-child.  Cameron Crowe didn’t foreshadow either scenario in Say Anything, and those unattractive wrinkles are what give Grosse Pointe Blank and High Fidelity greater resonance.  Yes, they all end happily, but look closer: Rob has to pummel down his own entitlement and self-satisfaction before he can win Iben Hjejle’s pragmatic lawyer (and in an ending scene worthy of Billy Wilder, he shows his willingness to change by making her a mixtape full of stuff she’d like, rather than stuff he thinks she should like), and Martin has to kill a whole house full of people to get Debi.  By comparison, Lloyd’s happy ending comes to him.

The message is clear.  Love hurts, yeah, yeah, and the personal sacrifice of maintaining it is great.  I don’t know if Cusack’s character knew that in 1989.  I think he does ten years later.

Disney’s Grosse Pointe Blank and High Fidelity look fairly solid, with High Fidelity‘s moodier, textured visual palette taking the prize.  Both get awesome 5.1 DTS-HD Audio tracks to showcase the gunfights in Grosse Pointe Blank and the encyclopedia needle drops in High Fidelity.

As for features, Grosse Pointe Blank gets nothing, and High Fidelity gets a little more: nine good deleted scenes and a series of interesting conversations with director Stephen Frears and Cusack.

As a deconstruction of the John Cusack persona, Grosse Pointe Blank and High Fidelity deserve comparison with Woody Allen’s films from the 1970s and 1980s – they are that truthful and entertaining in their view of human nature.

Grosse Pointe Blank and High Fidelity street on August 7th.  Click HERE and HERE for Amazon’s respective listings.