Note: Holy smoke — Flash ran so fast his face melted! Is it Barry? Wally? Bart?!? Actually, it’s the last of a trio of figures including Wonder Woman and Aquaman that I found as promotional items in bags of potato chips in Mexico. Which, of course, means Mexico is winning the Promotional Items Arms Race.
Recently, I did something that most people of a certain age find themselves doing — having an online discussion about John Cusack.
Nowadays, I’m ambivalent about Cusack, but back in the 80s I LOVED that guy. He was in a lot of coming-of-age movies that caught me at just the right time, and it was when he was still funny.
And I don’t mean Hot Tub Time Machine funny, I mean really funny. Part of this was because he was the go-to guy for “Savage” Steve Holland, who made a name for himself with some supremely silly movies about teens who smoked and drank and lived in a sort of cartoon world where nothing was too serious and no one got hurt. If there was a scale, John Hughes would be on one end, and Holland would be on the other.
The discussion started with a picture I posted from Better Off Dead. If you haven’t seen it before, stop reading this right now and go get it. It’s a classic — no idea is too crazy, there is just one ridiculously great line after another, and it somehow all comes together into a tight little story with characters you genuinely care about. It is — hand to God — the funniest movie about teen suicide you’ll ever watch.
Cusack, unfortunately, didn’t feel the same way. He reportedly left the theater 20 minutes into a premier screening and then reamed Holland out for “using him” and “making a fool out of him.” Cusack would work with him again a year later in 1986’s One Crazy Summer, solely due to contractual obligations; after that, the two were kaput.
Which is a shame. Because, in my mind at least, it looked for a while as if Steve Holland was going to be our generation’s Mel Brooks and Cusack our Gene Wilder. He played an immensely likable and identifiable teenager, which isn’t easy. And he was doing it when theaters were overflowing with likeable, identifiable teens. To stand out must have meant he was doing something right. When Cusack suddenly decided he was a self-important, capital-A Actor, he shoved a natural talent for comedy to the back of his cupboard until it crumbled into a bitter, barely recognizable pile of dust.
Frankly, I think he screwed it all up. At the time, Cusack had a ton of potential (it could argued he still does). But starting with his starring role in 1989’s Say Anything, Cusack started a spiral that circles around mediocre rom-coms (often without the com) and pseudo-thinky films that, for all the effort, just manage to be boring. It’s too bad, because again it’s about potential. Gene Wilder is mostly known for playing absurdist roles with plenty of heart, and Cusack had a talent for that in spades. With some maturity and good roles, he could have been in the same pool as John Candy or (dare I say it? I dare!) Bill Murray. Instead, enjoy a viewing of … shit, I don’t know, Serendipity?
Of course, Cusack has made some good movies — the fantastic Being John Malkovich and the slow burn of High Fidelity come to mind — but they’re not my favorites. These are my favorites:
Better Off Dead
I could say more about this movie than I already have, but I’ll just let you watch this instead.
The Sure Thing
I don’t know if people just forget about this one, but it’s a great road movie about teens taking their first real steps into adulthood. It’s funny, it’s sweet, it’s smart, and at its core it’s about love and sex (if you’re into that sorta thing). Here’s some cinematic shorthand; it’s directed by Rob Reiner. If you have a love for When Harry Met Sally, watch the movie where he first explored most of its themes.
There is absolutely nothing funny about The Grifters and that’s completely OK. (I never said I wanted Cusack to do nothing BUT comedy). Like the hard-boiled noir it’s based on, this film is a punch in the gut; once you realize that fist has a knife in it, it’s too late and all you can do is sit there, stunned.
For what it’s worth, I’m glad John Cusack is still around. I just wish the guy who shows up now looked more like the kid I saw all those years ago.