If any one actor is responsible for my marriage, it would have to be John Cusack. So we honor him here today.
John Cusack Canon (In Chronological Order) (Roughly)
Sixteen Candles- A classic of teen cinema. His role is small but distinct. I won’t lie, I watch it for Molly Ringwald, but Cusack is a nice spice on the stew.
Better Off Dead- Bizarre and delightful. A send up of the teen film comedy without being a parody, it is wildly quotable and the animation pieces are a weird and wonderful addition.
Stand by Me- Another fairly minor part where he makes a memorable impact, as the beloved and tragic older brother of Wil Wheaton’s Gordie.
Eight Men Out- As the perhaps untainted but still loyal to the cheating Black Sox, Cusack’s Buck Weaver is a performance of smart subtlety. The movie probably won’t work if you aren’t a big baseball fan, but there’s no denying Cusack’s work here.
Say Anything…- The best teen movie of all time. Period. Lloyd Dobler is a singular creation. Big-hearted, odd, popular, and utterly free of ambition save to find a great love.
The Grifters- Often considered Cusack’s official arrival as an adult actor (as opposed to teen/kid, not the other meaning), this dark as pitch con film bruises in almost every scene. I wouldn’t describe it as a pleasant experience, but it is a hypnotic descent into a world where Cusack’s amoral short-term con artist is the closest thing to a ethical arbiter you can find.
Bullets over Broadway-Drawing on the naiveté that he still could affect in his mid-20’s and the growing cynicism he tapped into in The Grifters, the Cuse (as he’s known to his friends) depicts the slow corruption of a playwright. With Woody Allen jokes.
Grosse Point Blank- So damn good. So smart, so funny, so…perfect. The film makes the simple line, “This is me…breathing” a laugh line and a heartbreakingly tragic confession (to an empty room, besides). There’s not a frame of this movie I’d change. Great supporting turns by the likes of Minnie Driver, Jenna Elfman, Jeremy Piven, Dan Ackroyd, and more ensure everybody is playing at Cusack’s level.
Being John Malkovich- The world’s introduction to Charlie Kaufman’s unique talents, it’s a movie that really needs to be seen to be truly appreciated. The way the fantastical clashes and mingles with the greyest of grey everyday existence while Cusack abandons all vanity to play as sad a sack as there ever was is incredible.
High Fidelity- I’ve written about this before—and fairly recently—so I won’t rehash that. I’ll just say that somehow the script takes the very British Rob Gordon and moves him to Chicago to be played by the very American John Cusack and the whole thing still sings.
Runaway Jury- Yes, it is a movie based on a John Grisham book that reduces the gun control debate to simple sloganeering. It still works. Machinations a-plenty, it plays out as a battle of the smartest people in the room and I just love those stories. One of Gene Hackman’s last roles, too, and he’s just as great as you remember.
Ice Harvest- Dark. Mean-spirited. Pretty great. Think A Simple Plan meets Trapped in Paradise, but funnier and blacker than both.
Lesser Films Still Worthy of Consideration
The Sure Thing- A pretty typical teen “but the one I should be with has been here the whole time” flick saved by winning lived-in performances from its leads.
One Crazy Summer- A lesser Better Off Dead, it’s still a fun romp.
Tapeheads- So bizarre I can’t play it above, but if you can hook into its vibe, it’s great. I wish we still had this version of Tim Robbins around.
Bob Roberts- Speaking of Tim Robbins, this is an ultimately flawed political satire film that still hits more than it misses. The misses and Cusack’s relatively small role mean that it shows up here rather than above though.
City Hall- I love movies, TV, etc about politics, especially when they feature great speechifying. The speech here belongs to Al Pacino, but Cusack—as a Cajun transplanted in NYC who somehow achieved the level of Deputy Mayor—is the film breaking heart. The ending feels grafted on from a less cynical film and really undermines what came before it, but still, until then, I was hooked.
Cradle Will Rock- Another Robbins/Cusack collaboration. Long and self-serious, it still dazzled at times. Cusack’s indecisive Nelson Rockefeller has good shading and never breaks cartoony, which he easily could have in others’ hands.
Identity- So dumb! But a fun thriller until its “this was the killer all along” montage, a moment I almost admire for its seeming complete lack of self-awareness.
Adult World- Flashes of the old John Cusack are all over this, but he’s not in it nearly enough and the film has pacing problems. Still, the moments he is onscreen and invested, you can feel the old bounce and energy of his work.
Grand Piano- What if the assassin of Grosse Point Blank got rejected at the Reunion instead? And maybe took some advice from Phone Booth’s Kiefer Sutherland character? That’s probably who Cusack is playing here. Pulpy and just silly at moment, it nonetheless commands your attention throughout.
A Few to Avoid
The Road to Wellville-Unpleasant in nearly every way.
Con Air- A master class in bad filmmaking, I do still have to admit Cusack is good in it. The kind of role to watch now to remind yourself how much he could get out of so little. Still just a rotten picture though.
Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil- Clint Eastwood directed this one with a maximum disinterest in subtlety. Everyone’s broad as all get out “Southern” accents don’t help matters either.
America’s Sweethearts- Ugly and mean in all the wrong ways, this is a movie that expects you to cheer for two of its protagonists to get together by the end, but everyone is so noxious, or passive, or bland, or shrill, why wouldn’t I want them to be alone forever?
2012- I hate it. In so many ways. Dumb (but not delightful), weirdly regressive in its politics, and did I mention dumb?