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?

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  • whatevs

    I see what you mean. He just has that look though! Although, he should definitely do more movies outside of that genre, as they have been some of his best. Con-air, Runaway Jury, and 1408 come to mind.

    And who can forget his voice acting role as the charming Dimitri in Anastasia!

    • Shannon

      I forgot about Runaway Jury, yes he was good in that too.


        Runaway Jury was a poorly written story – Cusack’s best films

        1. The Sure Thing
        2. Better off Dead
        3. Grace is Gone
        4. Grosse Pointe Blank – I love the scene when he orders breakfast

    • Jen

      Don’t knock Dmitri. I love him.

    • llevinso

      Yeah, as I was typing my response below I realized at the end that Owen was really only talking about one genre of movie for John and leaving out all of his others. John has been in lots of movies where he hasn’t played a lovelorn guy, they just aren’t usually rom-coms.

    • Heather

      “Being John Malcovich” comes to mind as well… Talk about against type!

    • Levi

      1408 was beast

    • Rob Gordon

      Cusack played the bad guy in True Colors, a political thriller with James Spade (who was also cast against type as the good guy). An underrated movie.

      • springs

        High Fidelity is in my top 5 Rob Gordon.

    • Christopher

      Being John Malkovich used this personality especially well, and it certainly surprised us.

  • Shannon

    I think he showed some serious acting chops in the movie 1408, which I really enjoyed. I also loved him in Serendity and Must Love Dogs, yes they were predictable, but still cute nonetheless.

  • matt

    Being John Malkovich.

    • Johnification

      I would say Malkovich is one of his biggest stretches to date, and a role where he shows a lot of the qualities that Owen is looking for. Granted, he’s combining those new qualities with his patented rambling and lovelornedness, but it worth mention that it was a fantastic performance and a different Cusack.

    • M

      The Grifters

      • Mel

        The thing is that persona he plays over and over is one that’s so popular and well liked. I still go in knowing he’ll show me a good time :-).

        That said, The Grifters is my fave Cusack film. Dark comedy at its best.

  • Marsha

    I would have to say my favorite role of his was in The Grifters. A long time ago, I know. He can play dark, just would like to see him do it more often.

    • justjack

      I agree- I’m glad Owen mentioned it, it’s an awesome movie.

    • tvfan

      Yeah, I love the Grifters, but I also love Grosse Pointe Blank and Grace is Gone. Maybe he should stick to movies starting with ‘G’

  • llevinso

    I see what you’re saying Owen and my favorite role is, without a doubt, John as Lloyd Dobler in Say Anything. Do I think he brought a gentle subtlety to that character though that was very different than his character in High Fidelty though? Yes I do. And I loved that movie and character as well.

    One movie you left out though where I think John plays a different type of character very well is Martian Child. I really liked him in that and it was different I think.

    (And to be fair you’re only really talking about his rom-coms and leaving out a bunch of his other movies)

  • rockstarmom

    The difference with John Cusack and say, Tom Cruise, is that I expect John Cusack to play John Cusack. With very few exceptions, his movies are made to order for his screen (and assumed real) persona. Cruise on the other hand has tried charming, warrior, action and thriller to varied success, but I am never able to see around him being Tom Cruise playing a role. Cusack tends to more slip into his movies and become more seamless.

    • Diane

      Oddly enough I’m dying to see Knight and Day because Tom Cruise looks like he’s tapping into the Tom Cruise insanity

    • springs

      I agree with you. I like John Cusack movies because they’re John Cusack movies. I love the character he brings to the screen. Actually, I’m not really a fan of when he strays from his regular on-screen persona. It’s John Cusack!

  • Earthshawn

    Not sure about the violently part, but disagree as far as a NEED to stretch. As pointed out, some actors just do their thing, and that’s what most audiences are looking for film after film. Would we want Cusack to follow, say, Michael Keaton down a path of almost total irrelevance? I for one have been totally satisfied with Cusack’s recent work (the superb 1408, WAR INC., 2012, and yes, HTTM)and am not sure I’m looking for much more. Plus, he’s mixed it up: MAX, BULLETS OVER B-WAY (terrific), FAT MAN @ LITTLE BOY, THE GRIFTERS, CRADLE WILL ROCK, etc.. Keep on keeping on, John…

    • Ceballos

      I agree. Though the premise of this post is valid, I find it odd that Owen all but ignores all the instances of Cusack attempting to stretch and playing outside his preferred genre and instead zeroes in on the one stretch that he hated (“Grace is Gone”)

    • orville

      I forgot about Fat Man and Little Boy. One of my favorites.

      There’s also The Thin Red Line, Identity, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, Eight Men Out, and The Grifters (another favorite).

      • kay

        forgot about Midnight in the Garden of good and evil, I loved that movie when most people hated it! (maybe it was because of him) Owen forgot to include what a wonderful brother his is too, by having his sister Joan cast in so many of his movies… I like all the movies I have seen him in..

      • Rachel

        I thought he was really great in Identity. Glad to see someone else besides me knew of that movie. He is and always will be one of my all time favorite actors. He has done other things, but he sticks to what he is most popular for. Nothing wrong with that.

    • myron

      thank you for mentioning Max…very weird little film…where he helps Hitler get his start,,,the man is intelligent coo…check out “the ice harvest” too

  • Roy

    Cusack’s probably one of the few actors who can ascend the decade he started out in. “Grace Is Gone” is probably one of his best works.

  • Shauna

    Never understood why people keep hiring Cusack. A true one-note bore, and a face made for radio if I ever saw one.

  • Cathy

    I’ve always said that he kinda plays himself, which I love. He is my favorite actor. Even if he is a bit predictable at times, a lot of great actors were.I don’t want him to change!

  • Faye

    Love him….I think your complaint is one of the best things about him. He slips into all his roles with ease. Although I may not like all of his movies, always enjoy watching him.

  • Jelana

    I’ve always liked him, although lately I’ve gotten the sense in some of his recent films that he himself doesn’t like the material. I’ve read this not from any interviews with him, but it’s something in the acting itself. I think the villain idea is really intriguing, particuarly a greedy corporate-type baddie. I could see him making that work.

  • Jill

    I absolutely loved him in “Better Off Dead”. At that time I knew him only as “the other geek in Sixteen Candles”. I thought he played the lead role hilariously while dealing with his crazy family and break-up. Still one of my favorite 80s movies.

  • Michael

    Owen, perhaps it is a testament to how un-Cusack John Cusack was in Being John Malkovich, but I feel you left out one of his best performances in your analysis of how he hasn’t really changed. I really feel that Cusack hit his first peak in that movie, and since 2000 he has been retreading familiar ground. We’ve seen him break the mold, it’s time for him to try it again…

  • Denise

    The pic on the left is from Must Love Dogs

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