Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Golden Age of John Cusack: 1985-2000

Some actors have a shelf-life. The passion that drives them wanes over time and they begin turning in tired, listless performances, one after another. They become stuck in a rut that is impossible to break out of. Sure, there have been actors who have staged comebacks after years in the wilderness, but these are exceptions rather than the rule. In a perfect world, actors whose hearts aren't in it anymore would retire like baseball players, leaving the heavy-lifting to those who are still burning with energy. With this in mind, I want to highlight the golden age of one of these thespians who I feel has fallen off the cliff: John Cusack.

There were few actors more likable than John Cusack in the late 1980s through the 1990s. He didn't have the range of someone like Johnny Depp, but he carved out a niche playing variations on the sensitive everyman. Cusack was sexy without being macho and smart without losing his coolness. And, he was younger than most leading men of his generation making it all the more impressive that he was as confident and consistently excellent as he was.

Evidence 1985-2000 were the golden years:

The Sure Thing (1985) - Back when Rob Reiner made movies that anyone wanted to watch, the director followed up This is Spinal Tap by casting a 19 year-old Cusack as a brash, fun-loving college student taking an It Happened One Night-inspired road trip with stuffy co-ed Daphne Zuniga. Cusack was still a bit rough around the edges, but he proved in his first starring role that he could be charismatic enough to carry an entire movie.

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Better Off Dead... (1986) - While the premise of a high school student who repeatedly tries to kill himself after being dumped by his girlfriend sounds like the makings of a heavy drama, or at least a very black comedy, this is actually a very silly movie that is made funnier by Cusack's winning performance.

Say Anything... (1989) - Cameron Crowe's surprisingly good directorial debut found the perfect use for Cusack's talents. As Lloyd Dobler, the actor is funny, sweet, romantic, confident, and completely natural. Every performance that Cusack ever gives is doomed to be compared to his performance as Lloyd Dobler in the same way that boyfriends across the world are forever doomed to be compared to Lloyd Dobler.
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Bullets Over Broadway (1994) - Cusack plays the Woody Allen-surrogate in the director's brisk comedy. While the supporting players such as Jennifer Tilly, Chazz Palminteri and Oscar-winner Dianne Wiest got most of the critical attention at the time, in hindsight it is Cusack who holds the film together in what was his funniest and most assured performance to date.

Grosse Point Blank (1997) - This idiosyncratic dark comedy was produced and co-written by Cusack and thus was the first film to fully bear his stamp as an artist. He plays a literate hitman who attends his 10-year high school reunion and much bloodshed ensues. As Martin Q. Blank, Cusack takes the intelligence and verbal dexterity of Lloyd Dobler and adds it to a film that visits the dark places that Better Off Dead... only hinted at.

Being John Malkovich (1999) - Cusack at his most un-Cusack. Here, he is unattractive and somewhat unlikable, but with the help of Charlie Kaufman's script, he is as funny as ever. This is another example of Cusack holding his own in the important central role, but knowing when to let the supporting cast take over.

High Fidelity (2000) - Another Cusack-produced personal project, this may represent his peak as an actor. It feels like the culmination of his career, incorporating aspects of just about all of his previous performances. Most impressive is how he breaks the fourth wall and makes the technique work. Cusack draws the audience in like few other actors can. We recognize ourselves in Rob Gordon, the grumpy record store owner, and we like him not because he is perfect person, but because he isn't.

John Cusack should have retired after High Fidelity. This would have made a perfect end to a perfect career. Unfortunately, he kept plugging along and has now phoned in serviceable performances in mostly terrible movies for a decade.

Evidence Cusack's time is over:

America's Sweethearts (2001)
Serendipity (2001)
Identity (2003)
Must Love Dogs (2005)
The Ice Harvest (2005)
The Contract (2006)
Grace is Gone (2007)
1408 (2007)
Martian Child (2007)
War, Inc. (2008)
2012 (2009)
Hot Tub Time Machine (2010)

How many of these movies have you seen? During the golden years, Cusack never made two bad movies in a row. Sure, he could come back to life if any legitimate directors decide to take a chance on him again, but the longer he continues to not care, the harder such a comeback will be. I hold out hope, but this falls short of expectation.


  1. Hmm i'd like to ask you how many of his movies after 2000 have YOU seen? Because you are incredibly wrong.

  2. I don't see Con-Air listed. Personally, that is one of my favorite Cusack films.

  3. Hot Tub Time Machine was one of the funniest movies i've ever seen with an all-star cast. 2012, was one of the best movies i've ever seen with stunning visual effects. War Inc. my favorite movie of all time even though many people don't seem to like it. Martian Child was so moving a such a good movie in my opinions. Don't try to trash John Cusack if you don't know what you're talking about.

  4. Well, 1408 wasn't too horrible but as things go I have to agree, I love his older stuff. Last ten years, meh.

  5. I do like Con-Air and Cusack's performance, but it was more of a supporting role so I left it off this list.

  6. Saw Serendipity tonight. See it at least once a year. As a hopless romantic i really love the story, of never giving up on finding the one! John and Kate play well together and Jeremy Piven is great as the ever loyal best friend.

  7. Jesus Christ, you forgot "Max" (2002), you bloody eejit! How could you forget that?!?? Cusack was superb in this!

  8. I gotta disagree about War, Inc. I saw it and it inspired me to watch Grosse Point Blank. Since I'm aligned with War, Inc.'s politics, my wife & I both gave the exact same rating on netflix (4/5 stars) and IMDB (8/10) to both movies.

  9. I'll at least give War Inc. credit for trying something - I just don't think it worked.

  10. I realize this list was made before its release, but I thought Shanghai(2010) was quite good. Also, Max(2002) was a true highlight in Cusack's career. I enjoyed Grace Is Gone, Serendipity, War Inc., Must Love Dogs and Hot Tub Time Machine. I hated The Ice Harvest and could have lived without the rest, but I would say that Mr. Cusack's career is far from lacking highlights. I'm excited by The Factory, and tentative about his turn as Poe.

  11. While I think that "High Fidelity", "Being John Malkovich" and "Grosse Pointe Blank" are his best movies, I would always choose "Identity", "Grace is Gone", "The Ice Harvest" and "1408" over every movie he made in the 80's or early 90's (except for "Bullets Over Broadway" and "The Grifters"). He made good and not so good films in each decade since he started acting. So I absolutely disagree with that his time is over and I'm really looking forward to seeing "The Raven".