Saturday, August 9, 2008


After over twenty posts, it's high time that an appearance is made by one of my favorite actors: John Cusack, and discussion of the "Cusack canon". Now, let me limit for a moment what I consider the "Cusack canon", and then perhaps this rating will make a bit more sense. John Cusack has had a long and illustrious career in Hollywood, appearing in over 50 films, but has never had that one giant, breakthrough role to catapult him into the upper echelons of Hollywood. Instead, he's made his career on being the outsider character, the unlikely hero who the average guy can resonate with. People admire a Christian Bale or, from Cusack's own generation, a Charlie Sheen or Emilio Estevez, but they like John Cusack.

And so, when I speak of the "Cusack Canon", I'm talking about the Cusack movies in which Cusack is Cusack, the ones where he gives soliloquies to the camera and pontificates about the meaning of life. There have been four of these films: Say Anything, Better off Dead, High Fidelity, and Gross Pointe Blank. Not to take anything away from Being John Malkovich or Bullets over Broadway, which are great turns by him in their own right, but these are outside the pale. These films have four criterion that unite them: 1) the turn of pontification to the camera, 2) a scene where he talks philosophically to his lady love in elemental duress (rain, snow, gunfire), 3) the girl is just out reach, and 4) an exorcism of some high-school version of himself must be performed before attaining said girl. They're variations on the same character, but at the same time, they're the characters that I feel the most identification with, as in these roles, Cusack blurs the line between actor and audience and imparts direct wisdom, invoking true response from the watcher.

In re-watching High Fidelity last night with Sarah, who had never seen it before, I was struck with how narcissistic his character really is. It's one of his darker characters--still funny, still one people can relate to--but dark, morose. He's not the hero you can feel sorry for: his romantic problems are self-induced, and he's prone to double-standards for himself and his girlfriend. But his honesty and deep probing of the grey matter of life make for an engaging character. Unlike the hapless Lloyd Dobbler, who can't seem to catch a break, Rob Gordon makes his own breaks and decisively choses which breaks to not take; Lloyd is ready to climb the mountain for his lady, while Rob is done with mountain climbing and ready to mine through the thing instead of climbing over it.

Sarah remarked in watching it that the film doesn't follow the normal rising action-resolution-denouement of film: there are multiple crises for Rob, with multiple dance steps, as Rob moves from marginally committed to fully committed. But this is part of the genius of this movie--it's about a real relationship, which never move on the Meg Ryan pattern of A to B to C. The relational world is one of a constantly shifting alphabet, where A is sometimes followed by L, and preceded by V; sometimes, you're stuck at C for months, only to zing forward to Q and quickly back to M. Some people live whole lives at R. And thus, I could totally relate to this back and forth, stutter step version of a relationship, in which the guy is trying to get his act together, only to be sabotaged by his own worst version of himself.

The scene in the bar where he talks to Laura about the difference between a fantasy relationship and a real one is worth the whole film; it may be his best scene in any of the four films. I'm not at all a fan of the girlfriend in this one--Minnie Driver in Gross Pointe is by far the best--but the insertion of Jack Black as the CD snob sidekick is more than enough to boot this one into the #3 slot of the 4. For a time, I had it last, but in re-evaluation, the philosophical musings and Jack Black's shenanigans move it ahead of Better off Dead, which is good, but not good enough for #3.

Four used Clash records out of five.


Scott said...

Apparently I am qualify as a veritable Cusack fan. I have not only the four "canon" films you mention, but also BJM.

I like the fact that all of the girls in those films are "girl-next-door" types, not your unattainable Angelina Jolie or Julia Roberts. That is part of the charm of Better Off Dead...he thinks that Jenny is the ultimate girlfriend, but he's really better off with Monique, who doesn't need Lane to be a ski god in order to appreciate him.

I am with you about Laura in High Fidelity - she is nearly unlikeable, and I couldn't figure out why he was so hung up over her. But I think that is part of the point of that film - its more about his issues with relationships than about the "quality" of the girl with whom he is in the relationship.

John Barber said...

Spot on, as usual, Myles. This one is, I think, the apex of the Cusack Canon. The other movies seem to build up to this one. It may not be my favorite, but it is in a lot of ways, the best one.

And I know you don't like it, but you have to include ONE CRAZY SUMMER in the canon. It and BETTER OFF DEAD are like brother and sister. You can't take one without the other.

myleswerntz said...

I have to put this one at #3 because I can't put it before Say Anything, and I think his character in GPB and the script are great. In fact, I think that GPB is personally my favorite of the four, but Say Anything has to take the top slot if only because of the boombox scene, which I tried (with modification--I showed up with waffles--long story), and didn't work so well.

the hamster said...

john - what do you say? vote the brilliance off the island quickly?

myles - great stuff. couldn't agree more with any of this. SAY ANYTHING is my all time favorite. HIGH FIDELITY is salvaged by jack black. barber makes a good point about the sibling relations between SAY ANYTHING and BETTER OFF DEAD. the latter is not great, but so it goes. as black saved HF, so booger from REVENGE OF THE NERDS saves BETTER OFF DEAD. that dude is funny.

would i be hated admitting that i rather liked that IDENTITY film? thought it was nice. i'm just saying.

also and sometimes, i have a raging crush on joan.

myleswerntz said...

I thought IDENTITY was a nice take on TEN LITTLE INDIANS, and it was cool that Cusack was willing to take on something outside his normal range, if there is such a thing for Cusack. I mean, the man has starred in the films of Spike Jonze, Woody Allen, Harold Ramis, Tim Robbins, Cameron Crowe and Clint Eastwood! This is a man with some range! Applaud him!

Ally said...

I do love High Fidelity and it's what got me started reading Nick Hornby in the first place (About a Boy, How to Be Good). The book is EXPONENTIALLY better than the movie, as is usually the case, but I liked the adaptations towards more American music. The book is heavily into British punk and underground and it was a little harder to identify.

Anyhow, I do love John Cusack and agree with your assessment of Laura's weird pull. But you gotta love the everygirl.

And don't get me started on the choice of casting Catherine Zeta-Jones...