A brain, when strained, fails insanely near the planes. Translation: When air-traffic controller Nick Falzone (John Cusack), head hotshot in a roomful of stressed-out jet jockeys, finds his supremacy — and peace of mind — challenged by maverick newcomer Russell Bell (Billy Bob Thornton) in Pushing Tin, the ensuing quien-es-mas-macho rivalry throws Nick’s marriage, job, and sense of self into sudden turbulence.

Such flailing paranoia and desperate confusion represent new dramatic territory for Cusack, whose screen persona typically rests between the extremes of Smirking Daredevil and Neurotic Ditherer. In fact, Cusack seems like an enhanced Everyguy, marked by the courage to follow his own inner compass. That wry yet watchful self-assurance is the key to his quiet magnetism, a star-making specialty that has set Cusack apart ever since his beginnings in a swamp of crass, chaotic mid-’80s teen comedies (One Crazy Summer, anyone?).

Director Rob Reiner helped elevate the silken-faced Cusack above all that by casting him in The Sure Thing, a cheerful postadolescent It Happened One Night. Horny college freshman Walter ”Gib” Gibson (Cusack) undertakes a cross-country road trip to visit a friend — and, of course, get laid. Always self-aware but never self-conscious, Cusack demonstrates his character’s fundamental decency long before the plot calls for Gib to forgo easy lust in favor of a complicated love affair. What’s more, Cusack’s underlying steadiness anchors the film, helping keep it from veering into preposterousness.

Those traits practically define the role that, to many, captures the true Cusack. In Cameron Crowe’s Say Anything…, the actor plays goofy yet soulful Lloyd Dobler, a sage kickboxer who woos the smart and beautiful Diane Court (Ione Skye) against his friends’ advice. They want to protect him from getting hurt, but Lloyd stays true to himself. ”How did you get Diane Court to go out with you?” asks one classmate. ”I mean, like, what are you?” ”I’m Lloyd Dobler,” he replies. Perfectly attuned to Crowe’s insightful script and direction, Cusack makes the unassuming, sincere Lloyd an understated kind of teen hero. Lloyd later says, ”The girl made me trust myself” — but Cusack shows us that Lloyd had been doing that all along.

Ironically, most adult characters with that kind of principled confidence come off as dull, but Cusack has been smart enough to choose parts that let him demonstrate integrity bent sinister, men whose inner compasses no longer point due north. Fortunately, he also has the talent to do these roles justice. In Stephen Frears’ stunning noir The Grifters, Cusack plays Roy, an unambitious sharpie whose bookie-swindling mother (the incandescent Anjelica Huston) and unscrupulous floozy girlfriend (Annette Bening) each try to embroil him in their schemes. Beneath Roy’s easy charm, we see Cusack deploying that same circumspect intelligence. His half-closed brown eyes, lazy and friendly in other films, turn flinty here; he remains, to us as to the women on screen, tantalizingly just out of reach.

Lover boy, lawbreaker — why not combine them? Cusack apparently thought so, because a few years later he cowrote and coproduced a comic take on the career criminal, Grosse Pointe Blank. Cusack plays Martin, a twentysomething assassin who became a professional killer simply because he was good at it. But will his long-suffering high school love (Minnie Driver) understand? Cusack’s scrutinizing gaze and reticent delivery make Martin almost machinelike, but he skirts cartoonishness because his personal agenda is so clear that he can deliver a heartfelt declaration of love while dodging bullets in a gunfight.

If only Pushing Tin‘s Nick could keep his priorities straight. It’s a treat to watch Cusack riff on his usual persona by playing a character who can’t figure out what the heck is going on in his own head. But this rich opportunity is dissipated by the filmmakers’ wussiness: The script, by Cheers cocreators Les and Glen Charles, veers off into pseudo-profundity, while director Mike Newell (Four Weddings and a Funeral) keeps the camera at such a respectful distance that the tension never builds. With a little more finesse in the control tower, maybe this star vehicle could’ve taken off.
Pushing Tin: B-
The Sure Thing: B+
Say Anything…: A
The Grifters: A
Grosse Pointe Blank: B

Say Anything...
  • Movie
  • 100 minutes