Thursday, July 27, 2017

Catching Up With My Crushes: John Cusack

by Stephanie Crawford
There's a scene in War Inc., a satire that John Cusack wrote, where his character Brad Hauser mutters "Be still my trembling hands, for how you would tremble if you knew where I would take you next." Not to put too fine a point on it, but I wouldnít be surprised if Cusack has muttered that to himself before embarking on certain films. I wouldn't be surprised because from his early '80s teen comedies to his current spate of films that (mainly) focus on his characters' darker nature, there seems to be a controlled chaos. Within that chaos, there is a theme, which is that John Cusack loves the craft of acting so much that he will eschew trends, Q Scores and critical acclaim if he thinks he can get his hands thoroughly, honestly dirty into a role.

I originally started writing this as a way to revisit some of my favorite Cusack films, and do my best to chart how much his career has changed over the decades. To my surprise, it had more twists than I could have reasonably anticipated. Cusack gave us two beloved American pop culture babies in Lane Meyer and Lloyd Dobbler early in his career, cementing his affable, everyman charm. If you were told one day the kid with the Claymation Van Halen hamburger would play Edgar Allen Poe or a hitman more than once, maybe you'd laugh. Maybe you'd believe it. Maybe you'd shrug. Whatever the reaction, there's a good chance that you'd immediately want to see the result.

John's face is handsomely bland enough to demonstrate both the feeling of loneliness and the addictive charm of falling in love equally well. His acting range is broad enough that he can evoke the layers of anger, fear and absurdity inherent in all human emotions. It's not hard to follow him from skiing hijinx to a survivor of a school shooting scheming for justice, but it probably should be. Even in the lesser films that Cusack himself doesn't seem to be a fan of, it's still easy to want to jump on the out-of-control apple cart with him. Good, bad: he's earnest. You could see other actors playing some Cusack roles, but would you really want to? It's easy to project a lot of emotions onto the wide, darting eyes and pale skin. There's something about Cusack that prompts us to use our imaginations to act with him as much as he's acting himself.

Like all great actors, there are those gnarled performances that wind their way throughout a filmography. These are the roles that are so thoroughly occupied by the actor that there's no room for interpretation -- all we can do is relate to them on whatever levels our empathy lands on. Cusack hit that with Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman's debut feature Being John Malkovich. It's a world where a monochromatic office on half of a floor and a chaotic animal-filled apartment serve as bookends for a tiny door that literally leads into John Malkovich's mind. This was a film that was so relentlessly original in its script and execution that, if an actor lets themselves truly believe in the material, they have an entire universe of machinations, emotion and absurdity at their fingertips.
While it's easy to see how wonderful the film is now (Criterion release notwithstanding), at the time, Jonze was known for music videos and Kaufman was a TV comedy writer. To sign onto a film where you play a selfish, slovenly puppeteer who cages his wife and physically takes over a person, is to fully know how to look at a script for what it is and to not even process how it may affect your image or if it will do well at the box office. Every actor in this film put their trust in brilliant talents who were untried in the medium, and it paid off in spades.

I do wish I could hear any possible Con Air conversations John and John may have had during the filming.

Two years prior, Cusack's hit Grosse Pointe Blank was released. The year after Malkovich, High Fidelity came out. Both these films are widely considered to be Cusack's most beloved post-'80s output, and he co-wrote both with the same three writers, two of whom make up the production company New Crime Productions along with Cusack's childhood friend and recurring co-star, Jeremy Piven. (One writer, Steve Pink, would later direct Hot Tub Time Machine, a rare fun latter Cusack movie that succeeded at the box office.) One film features a lovable and relatable hitman; the other centers around a painfully selfish, stunted man who finds relief in remembering that he was the one who dumped his first girlfriend after she reveals her first time with his friend was mostly forced.

Somehow, the happy endings for both men are satisfying, even though their lives are suspended in moral gray areas. When Cusack is at his most engaged, that's where he shines: Give him a character for multiple notes, and he will play on. It's no coincidence that these are roles he had a hand in writing and adapting, and it seems like it was a high point in creative freedom in his career. In 2014, Cusack told Henry Barnes from The Guardian, "My friend Joe Roth ran Disney [until 2000]," he says. "He made things like The Rock and Con Air to make shareholders happy, but then he also gave six or seven slots to people he liked. I got to make High Fidelity and Grosse Point Blank. Spike Lee got to make Summer of Sam. Wes Anderson got to make Rushmore. I had that memory of film and that's gone."
Immediately following this high point were the cute but contrived romantic comedy Serendipity and America's Sweethearts, which I remember walking out of the theater afterwards and being so angry that the whole thing wasted such wonderful actors, including High Fidelity's Catherine Zeta-Jones, whose chemistry with Cusack in that film illustrated relationship insecurity in the hottest way possible. That said, America's Sweethearts is currently streaming on Amazon Prime. Play the opening sequence (I hate telling anyone they should skip an entire film, so I'll stop typing this sentence now.) In it, Zeta-Jones and Cusack star in a series of fake film clips, a few of which seem to parody John's career.

Cusack has some lows before, but this was our first glimpse into how abruptly he could subvert our expectations with What Cusack Deserves and What Kind of Films He Should Pick. Must Love Dogs certainly has its fans, but I doubt they were passionate enough about Cusack's performance specifically that they'd follow him blindly into his mid-aughts genre outings.

The early-mid aughts were, in fact, likely the most interesting of the Cusack eras in terms of experimentation. In 2002, he played a one-armed Jewish veteran who Adolf Hitler takes on as an art mentor (Max). 2003 brought Identity, an uneven but original take on an And Then There Were None theme with extra psychological twists. 2005's terrific The Ice Harvest had a low-key cool that encouraged every actor to fully buy into the script. Cusack plays a mob lawyer whose laid back enough to deal with his alcoholic friend needling him about marrying his ex-wife (played to smarmy perfection by Oliver Platt, who we'll see again in 2012) but not so laid back that he'll let himself get upset that a Billy Bob Thorton character met an unfortunate end. Some tender family drama followed (2007's Grace is Gone and Martian Child) and we ended the decade with a Stephen King adaptation 1408.
1408 brings us the classic King character: a drinking author who has suffered a tragedy and is estranged from his wife. Cusack has the time of his life here: from being battered by special effects to a scene involving his daughter that's so heartbreaking and dark that it almost doesn't belong in such a bombastic film, it's an absolute blast to watch Cusack play off of Samuel L. Jackson and ground us in very loud horror with a sympathetic performance that almost feels like it's what the inside of Jack Lemmon's psyche might have looked like in the beginning of The Apartment. It's also an entry into the Don't Let John Cusack Stay In A Hotel Room Trilogy, along with Identity and 2014's The Bag Man (where he again plays a hit man, albeit a less goofy one.) It's unfair to say that Cusack was born to be cynical and tortured in motels, but he's so incredibly good at it. To quote Cusack himself, "We've all been in rooms we don't want to die in."

I have to say it again: Cusack clearly loves acting. He loves other actors and he loves directors who are true "actors' directors." He loves his luminous, talented sister Joan, and their affection extends to respect enough for each other to star in 10 films together. Their sister Ann Cusack is a skilled actress as well, and their father, Dick Cusack, was a filmmaker who popped up in some of Cusack's early films. This is a career and a craft that has informed the Cusacks all their lives, and having that kind of mutual support makes it easier to take chances. Even in a big, dumb action movie like 2012, I can't help but think that Cusack thought it'd be interesting to do a disaster movie, and working with Identity's Amanda Peet again probably didn't hurt.

John also loves acting so much that he'll gladly do the workmanlike thing and take some less-than-stellar scripts because he wants to explore a character, but there are few other actors who come alive with such a notable difference in their acting style than he does when heís given something substantial. I see a few sparks in The Raven, where Cusack plays Edgar Allen Poe near the end of his life. It makes me long to see him play Poe in a setting where he may be wrestling with his psyche in a room, alone with his darkness and bad decisions, a la Phillip Baker Hall in Secret Honor rather than a by-the-book murder mystery.
Thank goodness for 2014's Love & Mercy, a biopic of Brian Wilson that charts the start of his relationship with his second wife and shows his struggles with mental illness just prior and during the recording of Pet Sounds. Both Paul Dano and Cusack act with a sensitivity that illustrates both the whimsy and intense pain of Brian Wilson, but Dano has the advantage in that he looks like a young Wilson. Cusack looks nothing like any era of Brian Wilson, but it's a robbery if you don't let yourself look past that. He gives a nervy performance that borders on uncomfortable in many scenes, and there isn't one second of it that feels exploitative or untrue.

I like Lucky McKee, and I'm looking forward to what he does with John in the upcoming Blood Money and Broken Ridge. Cusack seems to be focusing more on his political passions recently, and I'm curious to see how that will play out in his work. 2008's War Inc. had problems and was fairly clunky, but it had a lot of ideas and was incredibly ambitious for a first solo screenplay.

I've been a big fan of Cusack's for years. It's hard not to be. Over the past few weeks, I've glutted myself on his movies. Taking all that into account, I've come to one big conclusion: He's completely inscrutable to me. Not because he's mysterious, but because he's a pure actor. He does have common themes in his career (he's great at being dumped, cynical, wide-eyed and occasionally manic) but unlike Cary Grant or George Clooney, he's an actor more than he is a John Cusack. We reached past his roles to make Cusack himself a star because we liked him so much, but I'm sure he'd rather just do his work and rather not have random fans carrying on about his work. Sorry, John.
"I don't want to sell anything, buy anything, or process anything as a career. I don't want to sell anything bought or processed, or buy anything sold or processed, or process anything sold, bought, or processed, or repair anything sold, bought, or processed. You know, as a career, I don't want to do that." - Lloyd Dobler, 1989, Say Anything

5 comments:

  1. Great article Stephanie. Great actor who, sadly, has found himself lost in the trash of much lesser work in recent years, but still clearly loves what he does and is supremely talented. Thanks again to this site for pointing me in the direction of the Ice Storm, a film i skipped at the time due to pretty bad reviews. It really is a terrifically nasty little film .

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    1. Thank you so much! As much as John ha stumbled, he keeps grabbing enough interesting roles here and there that I still have (a lot of) hope that we have memorable roles to look forward to. Memorable bad or memorable good: I'll take it.

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  2. Did you see him in Paperboy? That was a side I'd never seen of John Cusack!

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    1. I did, and I regret not mentioning it, but what I wrote about it felt a bit disjointed (plus it's been a few years since I've been able to see it) so it didn't make it. That's a movie where it feels like every actor was given carte blanche, and it's worth seeing for that reason alone. Thank you for bringing that up; it's definitely a notable Cusack turn to say the least!

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  3. It's been a while since I've seen it but his HBO film "The Jack Bull" really stuck with me. Doing a Western and great bleak ending.
    But all Hail Lloyd Dobbler!

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