Six John Cusack movies in one day is more than I recommend watching. For day two of my Cusackathon, I watched seven. I recommend this even less.
Previously, we saw Cusack come into his own as a leading actor in some of those romantic teen roles he is best known for (The Sure Thing, Better Off Dead). Today we’ll see Say Anything, in all it’s boomboxy glory, but we’ll also see him take a dip into some sleazier roles, as a thief, a disgraced baseball player, and a ruthless politician. He’s jumping into more adult waters, but can he swim in them?
EIGHT MEN OUT, 1988:
Here, in director John Sayles’ historical sports drama, we have an excellent piece of ensemble work. Since this depiction of the Black Sox scandal contains a massive number of performances, it is no surprise that we don’t get to see much of Cusack, but what we do see works very nicely. He plays George “Buck” Weaver, a player eventually banned from major league baseball for his knowledge of the fix, despite not actively participating in, or benefiting from it. Cusack’s scenes talking with Chicago street kids effectively bring home the emotional impact the team has on the well-being on the city at large. His almost instant likability makes him perfect for the role.
Also worth noting is Dick Cusack (John’s father, and the reverend in High Fidelity) in a small role as a judge. The large cast includes John Mahoney, who has a larger role in Say Anything; Christopher Lloyd, who will play Rasputin in Anastasia; and Charlie Sheen, who will later appear as himself in Being John Malkovich.
SAY ANYTHING, 1989:
Cameron Crowe gives us what is, not undeservedly, lauded as the best of the early Cusack movies. Cusack plays the sensitive, if not too bright, Lloyd Dobler, an underachiever with a heart of gold who sets his sights on model student Diane (Ione Skye). Diane’s plans for the future are ambitious and complicated, but Lloyd has only one plan: spend time with Diane. Add an overprotective father (John Mahoney), and we have an equation that spells trouble for Lloyd.
Cue that Cusack rain.
But despite all the boombox holding, this isn’t really Cusack’s movie. The important decisions here are Diane’s to make. She is the one who must choose between Lloyd and her father’s wishes. She is the one who must grapple with the implications of her father’s actions. Cusack’s Lloyd, while essential, is in reality a supporting character to Ione Skye’s Diane. That being said, his performance is excellent, one of the best of his early career. Lloyd gives off an air of dumb but lovable, a departure from Cusack’s usual blend of slightly assholish, snarky, but lovable.
Dumb, lovable, and iconic.
Lili Taylor (High Fidelity‘s Sarah Kendrew) is hilarious as Rob’s heartsick friend, obsessed with a total asshole. Joan Cusack is also around, in an uncredited role as Lloyd’s sister. As always, the Cusack sibling chemistry is fantastic. On the side, it is interesting to note that Bebe Neuwirth, John Mahoney, and the city of Seattle, who all appear in Say Anything, will reunite four years later on Frasier.
THE GRIFTERS, 1990:
I want to like Stephen Frears’ crime drama The Grifters, but something isn’t right here. Cusack plays Roy Dillon, a small time con man stuck between his mob-connected mother (Anjelica Huston) and his sneaky girlfriend (Annette Bening). Cusack’s performance leaves me unimpressed, but to be fair, so does the rest of the movie. The whole affair has a noir feel to it, but the score and the performances seem like they are aiming for dark humor, which is unfortunate, because there doesn’t seem to be much humor to be had. The material seems like it has potential (there are some excellent plot twists), but none of it really came to life.
Cusack seemed bored most of the time. This was surely a conscious decision, but it’s probably not the best way to get the audience invested. Maybe Dillon was bored all the time in the book. The other performances were quite good; good enough, in fact, to garner Academy Award nominations for both Bening and Huston. Frears was nominated for his direction, but I’m at a loss as to why. There was something wrong with the pacing here. Now, there’s nothing wrong with a slowly paced film, but if the pacing is going to be this slow, you need some good tension built up to keep the audience gripped. It’s similar to the pacing problems near the end of High Fidelity. I suppose both cases could probably be blamed on being adapted from a novel. I don’t know. I’m glad this was on Netflix. If I had bought it, I would feel grifted.
TRUE COLORS, 1991:
This excellent drama about friendship, revenge, and the corrupting influence of power is brought to us by the late Herbert Ross, director of such films as Footloose, The Goodbye Girl, and The Secret of My Success. John Cusack and James Spader play two law students looking for careers in politics who form a close friendship, only to later smash it to pieces. Cusack’s Pete Burton is a man from humble beginnings whose resentment and envy of the ancestral wealth of those around him taints his personal relationships, and feeds his political drive.
Cusack and Spader have excellent chemistry. I’m not going to say much more about this movie, because it was a real treat, and an excellent chance to see Cusack stretch his range a little bit. I’m not saying that is is the crowning achievement of nineties political dramas, I’m just surprised that when people talk Cusack movies, this one never comes up.
MONEY FOR NOTHING, 1993:
Do you know the kind of movie where a dumb shlub improbably finds a large amount of money, and tries to keep it, but does a poor job of it? Well, this film, written and directed by Ramón Menéndez (writer and director of Stand and Deliver, oddly enough) is one of those, and not a great one either. Cusack’s Irish (I think) accent is inconsistent at best. Besides that, his acting is serviceable, and works for this sub-par flick. It is perhaps worth noting that he has Scrooge McDuckian money sex with his awful ex-girlfriend (Debi Mazar) who he is able to lure back with the promise of huge amounts of money, and the prospect of sex in a pile of it.
Yuck. I hope that money hasn’t been in circulation for long…
Oh, did I mention that this was based on a true story, and that the real life Joey Coyle killed himself about a month before the film came out? Well, it was, and he did. So there’s that.
BULLETS OVER BROADWAY, 1994:
Once upon a time, there was a writer/director/actor who made and also starred in movies about neurotic young artists who doubted their creative abilities and fell in love with several women at once, one of whom was usually underage. This writer/director/actor made roughly the same movie every year or two for many many years. But then, one day, he realized that he was getting too old to play neurotic young artists, and that the whole falling-in-love-with-underaged-women thing was getting creepy, seeing as he had fallen in love with his real life step-daughter. So, rather than writing about something different for once, he searched throughout the land to find a replacement. And that, I assume, is how John Cusack ended up starring in Woody Allen’s Bullets Over Broadway.
To be fair, this is a fine film, it just suffers from the fact that you can only watch so many Woody Allen movies before they start looking like the same one. A similar thing has happened to me with Cusack movies at this point. The stories might be different, but his performances tend to be very similar. So, I’m desensitized to this movie on both the Allen and Cusack fronts.
All that being said, Cusack makes a nice Woody stand-in. The flow of dialogue is so familiar that you can hear Woody saying it in your head, and it’s a credit to Cusack that he was able to put his own spin on it. Others (Sean Penn and Larry David, to name a couple) haven’t done as well. The other actors in the movie were excellent as well. (Diane Weist, Jennifer Tilly and Chazz Palminteri all received Oscar nominations for their roles.) It’s also fun to note that Cusack gets to act opposite Rob Reiner who directed him in The Sure Thing.
Rob Reiner is on the right, for those of you who don’t know what John Cusack looks like.
CITY HALL, 1996:
It looks like someone’s corrupt in New York! Deputy Mayor John Cusack is going to figure out who! (SPOILER ALERT: Turns out it’s everybody.) Harold Becker’s political drama/thriller falls a little flat, and I’m not quite sure who is to blame, Cusack, the script, or the direction.
Front row, from left to right:
The most screen time, the biggest pay check, Linsay Duncan.
Even though Pacino has top billing, Cusack, as Deputy Mayor Kevin Calhoun, is the heart of the movie. We follow him throughout New York as he chases a path of bread crumbs. Unfortunately, there isn’t much for the audience to latch onto in Cusack’s performance. To be fair, we aren’t given much time at the beginning of the movie to relate to him before shit starts going down. Once the ball is rolling, facts are slowly doled out in an undramatic fashion. The scenes are long and uneventful, but if your mind starts drifting for a few seconds (thinking perhaps about how inconsistent Cusack’s southern accent is), you’ve missed the one piece of information that makes the next scene make any sense. If you want to see a story about city corruption, please, just watch The Wire.
Well, that sure was a lot of Cusack movies. But there are more where those came from.