"A thousand innocent people get killed every day! But a millionaire's pet gets detonated, and you're marked for life." -- Martin Blank
Director: George Armitage
Writer: Tom Jankiewicz, D. V. DeVincentis, Steve Pink, John Cusack
Principal cast members:
To a lot of people, the film that summed up the 80s was 'Say Anything' and John Cusack's Martin Dobler character epitomized the outsider who makes good. The film ultimately seemed to launch Cusack's acting career and it provided a template for communicating with Generation X.
So imagine what happens if the kids who were Lloyd Dobler's classmates re-united for their 10-year reunion. Now, toss in a dose of cold reality about how most of them probably didn't achieve their heart's desire after graduation and had to deal with the reality of the 80s becoming the 90s. Sprinkle this liberally with dark humor and you will arrive at Grosse Pointe Blank, a wickedly funny Cusack film that in a very twisted way seems the perfect sequel to Say Anything.
Cusack plays Martin Blank, a man who vanished on the night of his high school prom and eventually became a professional assassin. Ten years later, he is becoming disenchanted with his work and uncertain about what to do with his life. His therapist is deathly afraid of him and the only person who seems to understand him is his secretary, Marcella. On top of this, a rival hit man is trying to strong-arm him into the union he is forming. Martin is under a lot of stress.
So when an invitation to his high school reunion arrives, he really doesn't feel the slightest desire to attend. But Marcella points out that there is a job in the same location for the same weekend which to her suggests it is fate. Naturally, Martin isn't too keen on fate. Nonetheless, he resigns himself to circumstances and heads home to Grosse Pointe, Michigan.
His arrival there is very unsettling. The first voice he hears is that of Debi Newberry, the girl he left waiting on the night of his prom who now works on the local radio station. Martin is startled to realize he may still have feelings for her. He also discovers he is being stalked by two government agents, a free-lance assassin working for someone else, and his pro-union rival, Grocer. Adding to his anxiety is the discovery that his childhood home is now the site of an Ultimart convenience store and his mother, a patient at the local mental hospital, doesn't even recognize him.
So in one weekend, all Martin has to accomplish is reconciling with his girlfriend, avoiding both government agents and paid assassins, and weathering the painful nostalgia of a high school reunion. Plus, he has someone to kill. This might not sound like fodder for comedy, but in the hands of this cast, it turns out to be an amazingly funny movie.
The center of the film is naturally Cusack himself. His Martin Blank is a man who is a cold-blooded killer, but he is surprisingly self-aware. He justifies his murders with the understanding that if he shows up at someone's door, that person probably did something to deserve it. As long as he can keep it impersonal, he can keep doing it. But when he returns home, we realize Martin is a man who does have feelings and he is perfectly capable of feeling guilt. The fact that these things are emerging as realizations to him at this same time, leads him to decide this job will be his last.
Blank is a true professional and a dedicated loner at the outset of the film, but this is a time of transition for Martin. As the film progresses, he realizes he no longer wants to be alone and he no longer wants to be a killer. Extricating himself from this career and re-entering normal society proves to be a greater challenge than expected and Cusack brilliantly delivers this in every scene of the movie. Part of his plan for the transition is to be absolutely blunt about what he does. Several times during the film, he tells people the exact nature or his career path and every time, the response is a flippant remark that assumes he was joking. One friend asks him if he gets dental with that job. His girlfriend's father responds with a nod and the assurance that, "It's a growth industry." It is only when Debi witnesses him in the act of killing one of his stalkers that he is taken seriously.
Debi Newberry is brought to life by Minnie Driver whose ethereal beauty is a delight and her chemistry with Cusack is wonderful. While Debi, like most of her classmates, is still living back in her home town, she has a kind of cynical objectivity about the whole reunion. But having Martin reappear 10 years after he left her waiting to go to the prom proves to be decidedly unsettling. After she cautiously agrees to go to the reunion with him, the discovery that Martin really is a paid assassin definitely complicates things for her.
As he always does, Alan Arkin turns in a stellar cameo appearing here as Martin's therapist, Dr. Oatman. His outright fear of his patient and his conflict over the morality of what Martin does make Oatman a very entertaining if all too brief addition to the film. Also providing journeyman support to Cusack is Jeremy Piven as a high school buddy who now sells real estate.
In a particularly manic turn, Dan Ackroyd plays Grocer, a rival hit man bent on organizing the world of professional assassins into a labor union. Martin opposes the idea for a number of reasons, but primarily because he prefers to execute his work as an anonymous loner. Grocer, however, will not take no for an answer and pursues Martin relentlessly.
An unexpected delight in the film is Cusack's sister, Joan, as his secretary, Marcella. Her wry observations about his life and her acerbic advice are extremely entertaining. At one point, she suggests he take a job executing someone on a Greenpeace boat, imploring, "Come on, sir, it'd be so easy!"
Clever characters and clever dialogue are the forte of this movie, but the pacing and the chemistry between the actors is one of the keys to why the film works so well. Cusack's energy and rapid-fire dialogues with Ackroyd are one of the highlights of the film and as always, when paired with his sister Joan there is plenty of chemistry, as well. But the unexpected joy of watching Cusack trade witty barbs with Minnie Driver is a fundamental part of why this film resonates so well, despite the macabre story line.
After the shallow giddiness of the 80s, the 90s were certainly a darker decade to experience. But that doesn't necessarily mean the children of the 80s can't have a few laughs in the decade that follows and Grosse Pointe Blank brings that lesson home in a very entertaining package.
Coolness factor: 8
Overall entertainment: 8