John Cusack is a smart man. More than that, he's a fine actor--see Better Off Dead, Say Anything, The Grifters. So why has he recently been relegated to bit parts? It's a question there's no good answer for. Apparently, Cusack himself couldn't think of a good answer either, so he took a page from independent filmmaking, rounded up some friends and colleagues, and wrote and produced a film with a wonderful role for him to showcase his own numerous talents.
Grosse Pointe Blank (unfortunate title) is the story of Martin Q. Blank, a professional hit man who is undergoing a life crisis. The professional killing business is becoming complicated because of the interference of fellow hitter "Grocer" (Dan Aykroyd, hilarious), who is trying to form a union of killers ("more like a 'club'") to maximize profits and reduce what can turn into very dangerous competition. Blank isn't interested in becoming a member--if you become a hit man to be outside of ordinary society, why would you want a boss?
To further stir up Martin's angst, his therapist, Dr. Oatman (Alan Arkin, brilliant), is so nervous about having a professional killer for a patient that he's no longer helping Martin. "Did you ever think that some of your problems might stem from the fact that you keep killing people?" Now it's time for Martin's ten-year high school reunion, which brings up a whole other boatload of issues.
Returning to Grosse Pointe to complete a hit and attend his reunion, Martin discovers you can't go home again, meets his old girlfriend Debi (Minnie Driver) and finally figures out what's important to him.
It's not as pat as all that, and the whole point of Grosse Pointe Blank is to watch great actors riff on life, death, killing for money, and midlife crises. In addition to Cusack, Aykroyd, Arkin, and Driver, Cusack's sister Joan shows up as Blank's secretary, and Jeremy Piven (of TV's "Ellen") is great as an old high school chum. It's not just one-liners and over-the-top situations, though those are there as well. Martin Blank feels real, and the situations he gets into build and build until you're not just watching a movie with a neat structure and efficient pacing, but one that completely draws you in so you need to see what's going to happen next.
Director George Armitage is very smart. He stays out of the actors' business, shoots the action like action, very cleverly, in fact, and generally makes sure that nothing gets in John Cusack's way.
I'm not sure exactly why, but Cusack's acting fills up a lot of holes and inconsistencies in Grosse Pointe Blank so that it all seems to come together believably (in context). It has something to do with perceiving that Cusack is extremely intelligent and always on top of things. You get the feeling that he gets it, and it creates an incredible audience identification with him, however outrageous the character he is portraying. Without Cusack, I get the feeling that nobody else could quite have pulled off the complexities and quirks of the role of Martin Blank to create such an entertaining, funny film.
In fact, Cusack's performance really transcends Grosse Pointe Blank to such an extent that thoughts of Tom Hanks in Big or Steve Martin in Roxanne pop up. Hopefully, the success of this film will similarly put Hollywood on notice not just that Cusack can bring in the bucks, but that he can deliver dead-on performances in a variety of major "leading man" roles. He's just a joy to watch perform.
Grosse Pointe Blank is a black comedy which crass-proofs itself. If you didn't laugh in Pulp Fiction, stay away. If you're offended by disrespect for human life being played for laughs, this is not for you. Otherwise, grab your popcorn and head in for one of the most original films you'll see this year.
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