Movies | Inside Movies

John Cusack: Is is time for a gear change? Or is he trapped, forever, in the 1980s?

better-off-deadImage Credit: Everett CollectionJohn Cusack goes back to the ’80s in Hot Tub Time Machine, but in a strange way, the role is almost too perfect for him. He has never really left the 1980s. At 43, he’s still that same guy – the boyishly polite joker with the pie-eyed Jughead face and thatchy hair, the gentle kinetic irony he spreads over… everything. He’s always smirky but sweet, sincere but put-on, in that infectious but slightly predictable way. A lot of young viewers complain that Kristen Stewart is “the same” in every role. I would argue otherwise, but be that as it may, Stewart is all of 19 (about to turn 20). She has a right, thus far in her career, to be more or less the same.

To me, John Cusack has been acting the same for more years than Kristen Stewart has been alive. He’s still that winsomely dour smart aleck from The Sure Thing and Better Off Dead, his first two big movies, both released in 1985. Only now, he has grown up, and his primary character trait is being a grownup while still clinging to that earlier, mockingly disgruntled boyish insolence. I deeply want to say that I like John Cusack – seriously, how could anyone not like him? He’s the soul of likability! – and, like everyone else, I think he ruled for all time in Say Anything (1989). That movie, in its small-verging-on-indie way, did for Cusack what The Graduate did for Dustin Hoffman: It exquisitely encapsulated a generational vibe in the spirit of one soulfully downbeat, quirkily confused romantic seeker. But am I the only one who wants to see Cusack change, stretch, lose (or gain) a personality trait or two? Am I the only one who has grown, over the years, just a wee bit tired of John Cusack?

Take a look at the two photos at the top of this column. At left, that’s Cusack, still with his baby fat, in Better Off Dead, the lively and affectionately remembered ’80s comedy in which he played a high school kid who turns suicidal after his girlfriend dumps him. Turning cutely, adorably suicidal is a very John Cusack thing to do. Just look at that smirk – it’s telling you that his despair, though real, is a piece of theater, that he’s getting a handle on his feelings by acting them out.

Okay, now look at the photograph on the right. Would you believe me if I told you that that it was a shot of Cusack from High Fidelity (2000), in which he plays a lovelorn record-store geek? Or Grosse Pointe Blank (1997), in which he plays a lovelorn hit man who returns to his hometown and looks up the girl he abandoned on prom night? Or Serendipity (2001), in which he plays a lovelorn ESPN producer trying to reunite, through the not-so-random randomness of fate, with his perfect love? Actually, the movie is Must Love Dogs (2005), in which Cusack plays a lovelorn maker of handcrafted wooden canoes who navigates the brave new world of Internet dating. Okay, this whole paragraph was a little unfair, but you get the point: That shot of Cusack could have been from any one of those films. The movies change; he doesn’t. Not really.

I realize that you could say the same thing about a number of great actors – like, say, James Stewart or Tom Hanks. But I guess I’m also saying that something, over the years, has grown a tad cloying to me about that hangdog Cusack ‘tude. I think I first noticed I was wearying of it when I saw High Fidelity, the celebrated indie-rock comedy that contains what is probably his most ardent and artful performance since Say Anything. He really put himself out there, yet the whole movie is Cusack talking, talking, talking – talking to the audience, talking to (or at) all the beautiful women who have dumped him. For all the self-involved chatter, he never truly exposed the raw nerve of romantic failure that he kept talking about; he turned it into ironic slacker shtick. I noticed that whenever he smoked in that movie, he didn’t like seem like a real smoker. It was hokey Method smoking. In a funny way, what was missing from his smoking is what was missing from his acting: the taste of grunge, of desperation made real.

He has, of course, done plenty of genre movies (with that persona fully intact), and there have, it’s true, been one or two times when Cusack got out of his comfort zone. In Grace Is Gone (2007), where he played a young father who learns that his soldier wife has been killed in Iraq, he spent the entire movie moping through his aviator glasses. I realize that it sounds like I’m now dissing him for the very stretch I’m asking him to make, but I’m sorry, the picture was awful – a road movie on Thorazine – and Cusack was miscast. He can’t do monosyllabic grief. He was suberb, on the other hand, in The Grifters (1990), Stephen Frears’ dazzlingly dark and tricky thriller that used his youthful cockiness ingeniously.

What he needs to do now, I think, is to try ditching the jokey irony, the patina of detachment, that has been his stock-in-trade for two-and-a-half decades. It’s a way of acting – of being – that grew out of the decade in which he came of age, the 1980s, an era that prized itself for a certain winking insincerity. And it’s what makes Cusack, even in his 40s, seem so eternally and naggingly wise-guy boyish. Every so often, there’s a shot of him in a movie where you can really see his height (he’s 6’ 3”),  and I’m always slightly jolted by it, because Cusack doesn’t act his height; he doesn’t draw presence from his strapping frame. What he needs to do, to truly stand tall as an actor, is to lose the compulsive fast patter, the relentless lightness that makes everything he says seem to be of the exact same consequence. It’s telling, isn’t it, that the most iconic scene of Cusack’s career – his boombox moment in Say Anything – is a scene in which he doesn’t…say anything. Maybe he needs to play a villain. Maybe he needs to do what Sean Penn brings off in a movie like Milk and completely alter his voice, his stance, his vibe. He’s a smart, wily, engaging talent; there’s got to be a way. But at this point, what I want from John Cusack, more than anything, is to see him surprise us.

Is there anyone out there who feels the way I do about John Cusack? Or disagrees violently? What’s your favorite Cusack role? Your least favorite? And how, if at all, would you like to see him stretch as an actor?

Originally posted March 30 2010 — 12:58 PM EDT

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