Some movies are defined by their director (Pulp Fiction is a Tarantino movie, not a Travolta movie), some by their writers (Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine bring Charlie Kaufman to mind before Jonze or Gondry), but some are defined by their lead actors. High Fidelity is, more than anything else, a John Cusack movie. As such, I felt that it was imperative that I become better acquainted with his body of work. This is why, on September 6-8, I watched 20 John Cusack movies in less than 72 hours.
My goal for this marathon was to watch, in chronological order, every movie featuring Cusack in a starring role up to and including High Fidelity. As such, movies like Sixteen Candles, Stand By Me, or Cradle Will Rock in which he has a minor or supporting role were not included.
In day one, we see a smattering of movies that helped to establish Cusack as a teen idol, and some that have thankfully faded into the shadows of our cultural memory. Let us begin.
THE SURE THING, 1985 :
Rob Reiner’s The Sure Thing is a sensitive and funny teen romance. Cusack plays Walter “Gib” Gibson, a college freshman who fears his days of attracting women are behind him. He sets his sights on, and immediately strikes out with, the studious Alison (Daphne Zuniga). The two wind up stuck on a road trip to California with each other. Gib has a date with a girl who his buddy (Anthony Edwards, best known as Goose from Top Gun) insists he will not strike out with. She loves sex. She is a “sure thing.”
Right out of the gate, Cusack gives an excellent performance in his first starring role. His performance as Gib has the same flavor of selfish assholery that is so present in High Fidelity‘s Rob Gordon, but here its immaturity is age-appropriate, and we really feel that there is a potential for positive change. That Cusack charm immediately presents itself, daring the viewer to try disliking this charismatic little jerk.
A soggy trend begins.
There are a number of parallels to High Fidelity here. In both, Cusack plays a rather shiftless, irresponsible individual vying for a more serious woman. Alison wants to be a lawyer, and could easily grow up to be much like Laura. Both Rob and Gib question whether they are getting too old to be jumping from woman to woman (though it’s hard to take it seriously coming from 19-year-old Gib.) Both are forced to choose between a real woman and a fantasy. Both are plagued by their own hilariously obnoxious Tim Robbins. (In The Sure Thing, he sings Age of Aquarius.)
Just 15 years away from a Steven Segal ponytail.
This movie has real heart, and I highly recommend it, both by its own merits and as a thematic prequel to High Fidelity.
THE JOURNEY OF NATTY GANN, 1985:
This Disney film directed by Jeremy Kagan (The Sting II) is a fun, if not groundbreaking, “girl and her wolf-dog become hobos” movie. I hope you don’t expect much Cusack, because he’s in the movie for maybe twenty minutes, despite his starring credit. He plays a character, the depths of whose characterization could be summed up by the phrase “friendly young hobo.” He doesn’t get rained on in this movie, but he does get a bunch of dirty water poured all over his face, for reasons unknown.
There are no real High Fidelity connections here, but there is one really bizarre parallel to The Sure Thing. Both movies feature a scene where a girl is hitching a ride in the back of a pickup truck, when the creepy hat-wearing driver makes unwanted sexual advances. In both movies, the traveling companion (Cusack in Sure Thing, a giant dog in Natty Gann) is hiding in the back of the truck, and valiantly saves the lady’s honor (Cusack by feigning insanity, the dog by ripping the man’s face off.)
1985 was a bad year for movie truck-rapists.
BETTER OFF DEAD, 1985:
In his first of two films directed by Savage Steve Holland, Cusack plays Lane Meyer, a teen obsessed with his ex-girlfriend Beth (played by Amanda Wyss, who also played a girl named Beth who dumped Woody in a couple of episodes of Cheers) who dumps him for a superior skier. Sad. So sad that Meyer tries throughout the movie to end his own life. This would be depressing as all get-out, were it not for the fact that the movie takes place in the type of bizarre, wacky ’80s world where this type of bullshit happens:
There are no words.
He dreams of dancing claymation burgers, his mother’s cooking literally crawls off his plate, Howard Cosell-esque Asian twins try to force him to drag race, etc. While this type of thing can be incredibly annoying if it isn’t done right (see One Crazy Summer), here all the bizarre elements come together to both further the plot and create an atmosphere of a world gone mad, making Meyer’s confusion more relatable. We see here a Cusack that has been dumped, but instead of the introspection of Rob Gordon, here we see depression. Zany zany depression. Lane does not get rained on, but he does get covered in snow.
Close enough, right?
ONE CRAZY SUMMER, 1986:
It would appear that after the success of Better Off Dead, someone decided to get the gang back together for more absurd shenanigans. But this time Savage Steve Holland strikes out, with a big jumbled mess of obnoxious bullshit. It could be that watching two of these types of movies in a row is just a bad idea, but I’m guessing that I’m not the only one who thinks this movie stinks, seeing as Savage Steve Holland’s career took a bit of a nosedive immediately afterwards. Coincidentally, his biggest success after this was writing Drake & Josh, a Nickelodeon show starring Drake Bell, who played young Rob in High Fidelity.
In any event, Cusack plays Hoops McCann, a high school grad who has to complete a short animated film about love. But he’s never been in love! Oh no! Bullshit ensues.
Bullshit involving Bobcat Goldthwait and a mechanical rabid dolphin.
From here on out it is just a jumble of loosely connected, barely coherent events, most of which have no bearing on the plot at large, and the whole “what is love” thing gets lost in an ocean of ’80s dumbassery. Demi Moore is there, perhaps foreshadowing her future role in Nothing but Trouble. Oh, did I mention there’s a Save the Rec Center by Having a Concert subplot? Actually, it might be the main plot. Damned if I could tell. I’d comment on Cusack’s acting, but he doesn’t do a whole hell of a lot of it. He does wear the following hat, however:
It’s a funny hat. GET IT? Laugh, dammit.
HOT PURSUIT, 1987:
This fun action comedy from Steven Lisberger (director of TRON) finds Cusack playing Dan Bartlett, another in a line of Cusack characters doing absurd things for the sake of love (or sex). This time he is desperately trying to catch up with girlfriend Lori and her family as they vacation their way across the Caribbean. But wait, there’s danger about!
He’s not going to let Cusack meet the parents.
Yes, Ben and Jerry Stiller are menacing his girlfriend’s family, and Cusack is going to have to stop them with just a stolen poncho and an unshaven Robert Loggia. In terms of Cusack’s performance, we don’t see anything new, but he is certainly adequate to the needs of this fun, uncomplicated little flick. Also, Cusack gets rained on harder than ever before.
I’m not entirely sure what to make of Tapeheads, Bill Fishman’s odd contribution to the Cusack filmography. Cusack and Tim Robbins play a couple of out-of-luck security guards who have a passion for making music videos. Through their attempts to break into the industry, they find themselves entangled in a political sex scandal. At first the movie seems to be a story of two losers trying to succeed in a creative industry, facing the challenges of maintaining their creative integrity, while the audience is treated to music video parodies. But then, bizarre ’80s shit starts happening, and whatever the core of the plot might be gets lost in a whirlwind of dancing secret service agents and pointless nunchuk battles.
That being said, Tim Robbins and John Cusack have great chemistry, and it’s a shame the script doesn’t give them more opportunities to showcase it. This is also the first time we get to see Cusack make much of a departure from the teenager lover-boy role he’s been playing since The Sure Thing, but unfortunately I wouldn’t really count it as a success.
But don’t worry, he’ll have 14 more chances before this Cusackathon is over.