John Cusack should’ve been the Generation X Gene Wilder: An argument

Posted: December 13th, 2013 | Author: | Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , | 2 Comments »

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.

No, really.

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.

The Grifters

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.

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2 Comments on “John Cusack should’ve been the Generation X Gene Wilder: An argument”

  1. 1 Patrick Joseph said at 6:42 pm on December 13th, 2013:

    Hey Max! I watched the origins of this post unfold the other day, and wanted to chime in. I hadn’t really realized how long it’s been since I watched a new John Cusack movie with any enthusiasm. Identity maybe? That Stephen King one in the creepy hotel was ok.

    I will defend Grosse Point Blank as his best post-teen film. It was staged as an homage to the Holland movies, and could have taken place in the same world as One Crazy Summer. It was kind of the post-Crisis version of events.

    We re-watched Say Anything a couple of weeks ago, and it’s still a joy, despite some unrealistic characterizations. Ione Skye is more annoying than I recall finding her when I was a love sick 19 year old.

    Anyway. I’m going to have to think more about your perspective. I am with you on the unsung genius of Holland and his collaborations with Cusack, but had never thought of the Brooks/Wilder model to describe their relationship. Interesting, and worth considering seriously.

    I haven’t sen Better Off Dead in about 20 years, so may have to revisit that one. I have never seen the Sure Thing, and that’s a little shaming.

    Anyway, a thoughtful and interesting post as always.

  2. 2 WTF Pancakes said at 9:49 pm on December 13th, 2013:

    This one really speaks to me. I’m 100% with you on Better Off Dead and The Sure Thing (lord, I had a “thing” for Daphne Zuniga back in the day) and The Grifters is a fine work as well. My big takeaway from the Cusack films was, unfortunately, a bit of a disaster. He was my model for “how to get a girlfriend,”, which, as I understood it, meant “be a really good friend, a really sincere, nice, guy and be REALLY persistent and she’ll fall for you eventually.”

    Yeah, that’s “stalking” more than “romancing,” but I was significantly younger then.

    What I really loved about him, what I thought I could relate to, was the way he played a guy who was on the cusp of a transition and dealing with the fact that the things that had worked for him would have to be left behind. He was physically “there,” but he wasn’t “there” anymore, if that makes sense. I was never as cool, of course, but I felt like he (or his characters) were something to aspire to.

    And yeah….Serendipity. *sigh*

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