Nothing puts people in the mood for love quite like a John Cusack romantic stalker comedy. John Wayne made westerns. Bruce Willis does action pictures. John Cusack specializes in life affirming Romantic Stalker Classics. These are the films where an emotionally arrested borderline paranoid schizophrenic spends the first act pining over a lost relationship, the second stalking her, and the third making her like it. And audiences swoon because they think it's charming. But if you stop to think about it, the guy you're rooting for is basically just a serial killer who's too neurotic to kill.
Viking Night: Grosse Pointe Blank
By Bruce Hall
July 31, 2012
In this case his name is Martin Blank (John Cusack), and he's a dapper international assassin whose life is anything but glamorous. A violently unstable competitor named Grocer (Dan Aykroyd) wants to bully him out of business. He's filled with latent anxiety about the morality of his job. There's a girlfriend shaped hole in his heart that he fills with recurring dreams of his high school sweetheart. His terrified therapist wants him to stop calling. And his henpecking secretary (Joan Cusack) is pushing him to go to his ten year high school reunion.
Then, a botched hit forces him to accept a job in his old hometown of Grosse Pointe, MI on the eve of his class reunion. It's already pretty extraordinary for someone to need a professional hit in a town of five thousand. So it’s a double coincidence for Blank's assignment to be of particular inconvenience inconvenience to Grocer, who retaliates by selling his colleague out to the Feds. There's also another hit man in town looking for Blank and when he discovers all this, you'd think he'd leave. But it turns out his old flame Debi (Minnie Driver) is still in town, working at the local radio station.
And as Blank sits outside in his car, rocking back and forth and staring at her, he decides to take stock of his life.
He’s a professional killer who feels guilty about killing. He has no past. His home and his parents are gone. Why not start over? Debi conveniently mentions on air that she’s single and disillusioned about men, so Blank decides to just drop by the station. He goes inside, barges into the booth while she's in the middle of a spot and surprises her. This is a critical point in the movie because if this is Gary Oldman, and he stabs her 50 times, it's a psychological thriller. But since it's John Cusack, who has soulful eyes, and he asks her on a date, it's romantic. Someone you haven’t seen in ten years sashays into the building where you work and just appears behind you in your cubicle, unannounced. That’s romantic?
But that's not the creepy part. The creepy part is that Debi's into it.
We discover that Blank stood her up at Senior Prom before dropping off the face of the earth for a decade. Now he rolls into town dressed like the Unabomber, stalks her outside her office and leaves. He comes back dressed like David Copperfield, says he's a professional killer and asks her to be his date, ten years late. Does Debi call the police, or brain him with an ashtray? No, she puts him on the air and asks her listeners to make the decision for her. Because someone would do that. These are the people we're being asked to root for. A lovestruck psycho and his spinster ex-girlfriend who lives with her parents and takes dating advice from strangers.
The problem isn't Cusack's nervous guy shtick, although it’s an imperfect fit. It isn't even Minnie Driver and her flawless impersonation of Andie MacDowell. The problem is this is supposed to be a romantic comedy, so the characters are required to be a two dimensional collection of genre specific quirks and tics. But here, the film around them changes tone so often that at any given moment at least one character feels completely out of place. Grosse Pointe Blank imitates spy films, rom-coms, action thrillers, farce, drama...all ineffectively. Nothing is allowed enough time to work before the story moves on. It gives the movie a choppy, uneven feel.
That's not to say I don't like parts of it. Cusack is no more or less appealing than he normally is. His sister Joan is amusing as his secretary, Marcella. I like the idea of Grosse Pointe Blank (a triple entendre, by the way) as a comedy about a hired killer with a wacky personal life, I just don't like the execution. The hit man thing isn't a problem; the handful of times we see Blank do his thing, it’s handled pretty deftly. But having a degree from the Ted Bundy School of Relationships does not make for a very appealing hero. And the high school reunion is a contrivance that forces the soundtrack to rely on songs and the screenplay to rely on situations that call attention to Cusack the actor - which makes him less credible as Martin Blank.
It all just adds to the film's jumbled and distracting tone, which makes the individual performances that much more important. Too bad, because as I already mentioned, that’s a grab bag. Minnie Driver is adorable, but unconvincing. Dan Aykroyd is many things, but he's no action star. It’s obvious the last weapon he held was one of the plastic ray guns from Ghostbusters. Lots of actors blink when they shoot, but Aykroyd squints and winces so badly that it actually breaks the illusion of character. And speaking of characters, Grocer is a perplexing one. As the antagonist, he dutifully appears at all the required story beats but he rarely feels like a part of the action.
It’s a wasted opportunity for a guy who’s capable of much more than this.
The last act of the film adopts an extremely dark tone that's a huge contrast to the rest of the film. I won't spoil anything but to say that it's thick with slapstick rated R violence, and a lot of nervous monologuing from Cusack. But it ultimately feels anticlimactic and trite. Grosse Pointe Blank might have benefited by spreading some of that imagery around to a handful of other scenes. There still wouldn't be a lot of laugh out loud moments, but it might have provided the film with some much needed balance.
I guess how you feel about Grosse Pointe Blank depends on what you see when you watch a life affirming Romantic Stalker Classic. Do you see a funny love story with a twist? A crime thriller with a vaguely erotic side? A wacky comedy with a lot of mugging and pratfalls? A sensitive drama about loss and starting over? A send-up of teenage angst? You're in luck on all counts, because Grosse Pointe Blank is random bits of all those things. Unfortunately, it never puts enough of them in the right order long enough to really work.