“Well thank you for profiting from my childhood”
Despite having most likely seen John Cusack in previous films, I do believe black comedy Grosse Pointe Blank was the first to put him firmly on my radar as an actor to follow. While the last few years haven’t necessarily been a great showcase of his talent, his late-90s run was quite a streak of hits that seemed to stem from this gem. Credited as a producer and co-writer, the film possesses a very keen comedic sensibility with a great sarcastic wit and flair for the emotionally manic. The subject matter concerning a gun-for-hire assassin returning home for the first time since disappearing on prom night to both complete a job and attend his ten-year reunion doesn’t hurt matters by allowing its premise to really make murder hilarious. The real charm, though, stems from Cusack’s ability to make his character’s amorality endearing.
Cynical to a fault, Martin Blank (Cusack) appears to fit the ten-year old psych evaluation that placed him on his current career path from the start. Bickering with secretary Marcella (Joan Cusack) while readying his gun for a long-range shot—to quell a competitor’s hope of killing a mobster his clients want alive—we experience a complete indifference to the actions he takes. Unfazed by his own fatal shot and the unfortunate reality his enemy booked a contingency plan, Blank’s demeanor always hides whatever emotions may or may not be stirring within. If any anger does exist, however, it’s not in his inability to keep the man his employer wanted living alive since he successfully killed the target he was given. No, his discomfort likes in the realization that the world now teems with assassins for which he must also watch his own back against.
And thus a crisis of identity rears its head after a decade of bloodshed. He tells his psychiatrist—a fantastically unhinged Alan Arkin who hasn’t taken the truth of his patient’s occupation very well—about dreams containing the love he left stranded in a seven hundred dollar dress and wonders if a pilgrimage home would ease his troubled mind. Serendipitously—or not—a new anonymous dossier wrapped in cellophane also arrives on his desk with the identity of a target right in his old hometown of Grosse Pointe. It’s as though fate has pushed him back to face old demons and new. But before donning a suit and finding his nametag on the reunion’s table of photographed youths unaware of the bleak futures awaiting them post-graduation, he must deal with the multiple mystery men who’ve followed him with dossiers of their own.
Arriving to find an Ultimart convenience store where his childhood home once stood, a series of tragic discoveries ensues. His mother has Alzheimer’s, classmates have gotten weirder, the girl he abandoned holds an understandable grudge, and four men want to take him out. Between the ghoul sent on behalf of a dissatisfied client (Benny Urquidez), two unbalanced government agents (Hank Azaria and K. Todd Freeman), and the rival he refused an offer of joining forces with inside a killer cooperative (Dan Aykroyd‘s Grocer), home isn’t quite the boring, action-free suburban terrain he escaped. His dual personas collide as a hope to put his professional life behind in order to find happiness with those he deserted takes over the now unsatisfying drive for money. Already having forsaken the life he built for one of isolation and adventure, Martin Blank looks to be reborn once more.
It isn’t easy, though, leaving stream of consciousness rants on his shrink’s phone to unburden the thoughts filling his mind and intentionally forgetting the job he came to perform once glimpsing Debi Newberry (Minnie Driver) outside of dream. He reconnects with old friends and begins shaping the future he hopes to achieve if he survives the day’s coming festivities. Mixed in with the absurdity of an alien abductee (Jenna Elfman) or crazed introvert with a gun (co-writer Steve Pink) are the heartwarming tales of parenthood, business acumen, and the white picket fence he so desperately ran from. Seeing the flawed idyllic concept of community staring him in the face with the woman he could actually stomach it with makes him want a better life. However, once the ‘joke’ of admitting his current occupation to everyone is proved true, it may be too late.
With a litany of fantastic supporting players whose faces you’ll recognize—Michael Cudlitz, Carlos Jacott—or are now bigger than this film’s stars—Jeremy Piven—the comedy never stops. Created from a story idea of Tom Jankiewicz, the dialogue on display is flawless in its humor and over-abundance of oneliners. With D.V. DeVincentis and the aforementioned Pink helping flesh out the screenplay, you have to wonder why Cusack didn’t simply continue his career by only working with them after their even better collaboration on High Fidelity. The actor is somehow able to retain his wholesome, unconventional hero persona whether playing the love interest or cold-blooded killer and the perfect marriage of the two here only shows him at the top of his game. Complete with punchy back and forth opposite his sister Joan, Driver, and Aykroyd, his utter disregard for placation here is brilliant.
And while his even-keel helps us fall in love with the character’s ambivalent narcissism alone, the surrounding over-the-top performances only enhance it by comparison. Piven—mostly reined in—has moments of fun obnoxiousness when needing the approval of former crush Jenny Slater and Joan’s extremely eccentric vocal dynamics with Aykroyd’s random screaming of words like “Popcorn” really offset the skewed drama existing behind Grosse Pointe Blank‘s comedy. Add in a rousing standoff with bullets flying and proclamation of love monologues between each explosive burst and you’ve got one of the most entertaining cult classics of a decade full of them. The 80s soundtrack perfectly holds the aesthetic of nostalgic longing together and the oddly cathartic journey of its hero is something we can all relate to—minus the body count, of course.