There was a time when John Cusack was the go-to guy for smart, funny teenager roles that nobody but the audience were meant to like. It was a skilful trick to pull; in the 1980s Cusack, in great films such as The Sure Thing and Say Anything, touched a chord with those who considered themselves to be facing the same problems as the characters he played: unpopular, unlovable, unlaid. But the undeniable truth was that he was cool in his dysfunctional way, and we loved it when he didn’t compromise himself and yet got the girl on his own terms.
But what would have happened to him if he hadn’t got the girl at all?
Grosse Pointe Blank (1997) is the older version of that John Cusack hero. The version who ran away from the prom rather than conquering it, and the best thing about the movie is that John Cusack plays that hero, who is now an anti-hero. His name is Martin Q. Blank, and being funny, edgy, and idiosyncratic for ten years has led him in an interesting direction. In fact, it turned him into a professional hitman.
So when a job he can’t turn down happens to be in his old home suburb of Grosse Pointe, Detroit, coinciding with his high school reunion, he ends up combining the two events, and meeting up once more with Debbie (Minnie Driver), the girl he stood up on prom night.
Tom Jankiewicz wrote the script after his own high school reunion, and it has a real ring of truth to the part which deals with meeting up with old friends – the way people greet each other, the things that have changed about them, and the things that never will change. You can see the old relationships being rekindled as Martin attempts to woo Debbie, and meets up with his one-time best buddy Paul (Jeremy Piven) along with the acquaintances who once surrounded him. The bullies, the good-looking crew, the organizers, and the deadbeats: they all provide a backdrop to a different story. The story of Martin’s attempt to find something good about life, after the terrible things he has seen and done.
In many ways, this film is the flipside of Cameron Crowe’s Say Anything (1989). For instance, Cusack’s character there, Lloyd Dobler, refuses to join the Army and leaves everything behind to be with the girl he loves, whereas Martin Blank has realised the ultimate emptiness of life and leaves everything behind, including the girl he loves, to join the Army because he knows he can’t make her happy.
There’s also the complication in both films of the older generations, but not in the usual sense of having to simply cope with parental expectations. This is about the mistakes of our elders, and how they are not our betters. The female leads both have fathers with checkered pasts that get uncovered during the film, leaving the younger generation with a huge mess to clean up. Say Anything has a really strong performance by John Mahoney in this role, but it’s less fleshed out in Grosse Pointe Blank by Mitchell Ryan; it’s one of the areas in the film that feels it could really do with some more space to breathe.
What else do they have in common? Joan Cusack and Jeremy Piven appear in both films, and they are brilliant, as usual. And the soundtracks to both are superb, using music to represent the 1980s so well. The use of the car as a place to listen to and appreciate music plays a key role; there’s lots of driving around to songs, fingers tapping on the wheel, for Cusack. He has a particular everyday charm when he’s nodding along, or fiddling with the radio station or the cassette player.
But perhaps the biggest element that the two films share is the underlying message that Crowe specified as the key to the character of Lloyd Dobler: Optimism is a Revolutionary Act. How easy it is to be negative about the world, and how much it takes to dare to hope for better.
Say Anything finds that optimism in the way Lloyd refuses to accept a meaningless job and would rather support his girlfriend emotionally – “I don’t want to buy anything, sell anything, or process anything as a career,” he says, famously. Martin Blank never had any optimism, but realizes during the course of the film that he needs to overcome his nihilism, and that is certainly an internal revolution. How many professional hitmen manage to find joy in innocence once more? There’s a touching moment when he holds the baby of an ex-classmate and he stares into the face of a brand new soul, and makes a connection with what he has lost along the way. In both films, the lead characters are attempting to live optimistically. It seems to be a nearly impossible task.
Having listed the ways that the film adheres to the teen movie format, it’s worth mentioning that there is one element that makes Grosse Pointe Blank very different: the violence. By the end of the movie John Cusack, in his black suit, his face covered in blood, is a figure from a nightmare. People get shot, blown up, hit with saucepans or televisions, stabbed in the jugular with a pen… does this really sit well alongside romantic comedy? For me, it really works, and reminds me most of Pulp Fiction (1994) in the way it manages to make such extreme violence tie into humor, and also character motivation.
Martin likes violence. He’s good at inflicting it, and we get to see that side of his personality, which makes this a much more interesting film. It’s not exactly a straightforward story of redemption.
It seems fitting that in one scene (showing the destruction of a minimarket where Martin’s childhood home used to stand) a large cardboard cutout of Bruce Willis, John Travolta, and other Pulp Fiction actors, gets mowed down in machine gun fire. The violence is both shocking and funny, but while that works well it does have the final effect of making it difficult to believe that Martin and Debbie’s relationship could ever work out for the best.
Could she ever forgive Martin for his bloodbath of a past? Maybe, but it’s hard to believe that she’d ever sleep well at night with him lying beside her. It raises the uncomfortable idea that maybe a fresh start isn’t an option for everyone, no matter how charming they are.
It’s good news, then, that Grosse Pointe Blank has a number of excellent comic turns within in to take our mind off the moral issues. I’ve mentioned a few already, but have to also say that this is one of my favourite Dan Aykroyd performances. He plays Grocer, a hitman who wants to start a union for his profession and isn’t keen on accepting Martin’s no for an answer. He is mean and very funny, but also puts across a genuine sense of danger and unpredictability.
On the other side of the coin, there is Alan Arkin as Martin’s reluctant psychiatrist, begging him not to kill any more people, please. Using the formal language of the doctor/patient relationship to discuss the fact that he’s terrified of Martin is one of the great moments of the film. These two characters provide a comic framework that holds together throughout.
Perhaps that’s why, when they disappear from the action, the ending of the movie is not as good as you might hope for. Everything is too quickly resolved, or not resolved at all depending on how you look at it. I would have liked another scene between Martin and his old friend Paul, perhaps, just to give it some sense of a journey being completed before a new one is undertaken. But even so, it’s a lot of fun as an antidote to teen movies, imagining what might have happened to that Cusack character if he hadn’t gone to the prom. Grosse Pointe Blank leaves you with a bittersweet feeling – even more so if you watch it back to back with Say Anything. But what a double bill that makes, even if it might dent your revolutionary optimism by the end.