Sincerity has become hopelessly out of fashion. For two decades popular culture has prostrated itself before the altar of irony, from Steve Martin’s stand-up to David Letterman’s parody of the talk show. When a critic, myself included, uses the word sincere in a review, it’s generally by way of suggesting that the work is agonizingly dull.
So what’s John Cusack, our most sincere film actor, to do? Here’s a guy who’s made a career out of playing characters who are incapable of dissembling, trapped in a world they never made. While his peers wink off camera, Cusack, no matter how glib the picture may be, is totally involved in the moment. It’s to his everlasting credit as a performer that we still care.
One of Cusack’s first starring roles, in the teen romp Better Off Dead, finds his forthright persona already in place. The film, which hit the video sales charts last month, when FoxVideo sold it for $9.98, is a passable hit-and-miss gag-fest, but at the eye of the hurricane of wackiness is a boy who keeps trying to kill himself after his shallow girlfriend dumps him. That’s Cusack, comparatively bland but immediately likable as suicidal Lane.
Lloyd Dobler, the protagonist of Say Anything…, is the quintessential Cusack role. In the first 90 seconds, one of Lloyd’s friends advises him to stay away from Diane Court (Ione Skye), the object of his desire, noting ”We don’t wanna see you get hurt.” ”I want to get hurt!” replies Lloyd. I don’t know a single guy who doesn’t identify with Lloyd’s tongue-tied anguish, or a gal who doesn’t swoon at the memory of Lloyd’s boombox serenade. The film’s only flaw, and one previously seen in Better Off Dead and 1985’s The Sure Thing, is that Cusack’s love interest isn’t one tenth as interesting as he is. Why would Lloyd go gaga over the pretty but boring Diane when the available, acerbic Corey (Lili Taylor) is in the corner strumming her guitar?
Ironically, one of Cusack’s first adult performances, in Stephen Frears’ adaptation of Jim Thompson’s The Grifters, is the antithesis of sincerity, at least superficially. His Roy Dillon is a small-time con, so honesty isn’t exactly at a premium. At the same time, Roy’s ferocious, oedipally charged relationship with his mother Lilly (Anjelica Huston) knows no politesse; the two may be liars, but they’re brutally frank with each other. Huston walks away with the movie, but Cusack holds his own, using his trustworthy face as a duplicitous mask and as a raw wound aching to be probed. At the time, it seemed as if an Oscar nod might not be far off.
Sadly, most of Cusack’s work since has been decidedly blah — not a major liability, since few saw the films anyway. (Anyone recall the aptly titled Money for Nothing?) True, he did play the lead in Woody Allen’s critically acclaimed Bullets Over Broadway, but his turn amounts to a so-so Woody impression, with Allen’s trademark neurotic whining and gesticulation. He doesn’t embarrass himself, but his emotional candor and Allen’s tics mix like oil and water. Ultimately the film works in spite of rather than because of his performance.
What a relief, then, to see him back at the top of his form in Grosse Pointe Blank, directed by George Armitage (Miami Blues) from a script cowritten by Cusack. The picture’s conceit — a hired killer schmoozing at his 10-year high school reunion — is fine, and it’s no surprise that when asked what he’s been up to, Cusack’s murderous (but genial) Martin Blank invariably tells the truth and is assumed to be joking. Better still, his paramour, Debi, is played by Minnie Driver, whose canny, beautifully modulated performance is (finally!) a match for Cusack’s own considerable wit and charisma. The two are a study in sarcastic sincerity, and the picture’s best moments are those in which Blank struggles to justify his livelihood. ”A psychopath kills for no reason,” he tells a hysterical Debi. ”I killed for money. It’s a job.” As Blank, Cusack is both proud and remorseful. And the amazing thing is that as usual, you believe him. Better Off Dead: C+; Say Anything … : A; The Grifters: B+; Bullets Over Broadway: B+; Grosse Pointe Blank: B+