The Man Who Vanished

Grosse Pointe Blank (1997)

Buena Vista Pictures

My all-time, number one high school crush was Jeffery at the Video Store, a lanky 20-something with dark, floppy hair who wore white T-shirts with the sleeves rolled up, complimented my rental selections, and waived my family’s late fees when the owner wasn’t around. He resembled a shorter John Cusack with a slightly lazy eye; needless to say, I was obsessed. Jeffrey and I had a friendly rapport that my rom-com-addled imagination exaggerated into a simmering heat, sure to boil over the moment I showed up at the store on my 18th birthday. I fantasized about the day we would confess our feelings and he would invite me behind the counter. In reality, the longest conversation we ever had was about The Blues Brothers, and most of the time I was too nervous to look him in the eye. I was an awkward, late-blooming teenager with a crush; he was an adult man working at his hometown video store while trying to launch a screenwriting career. 

Around the same time I was lusting after the suburban video store clerk, John Cusack’s production company was working on Grosse Pointe Blank, a black comedy about a professional assassin (Cusack) in existential crisis attending his 10-year high school reunion and reconnecting with the love of his life, Debi (Minnie Driver), whom he stood up on prom night when he realized “finally, and for the first time, that I wanted to kill somebody. So I figured since I loved you so much, it’d be a good idea if I didn’t see you anymore.” 

“Should a once broken-hearted girl give the guy a second chance?” Debi asks her Grosse Pointe radio audience the day Martin shows up at her door. What if he apologizes? What if you still make each other laugh? What if you find out he’s murdered lots of people and at least one dog since he split town? What if he’s John Cusack at his peak, all quick wit, intense stare, and, as described by Paula Span in a 1991 WaPo profile, “trusting eyes and bowknot mouth.” 

I’m not saying Grosse Pointe Blank endures because John Cusack is such a handsome devil…but I’m not not saying it, either. Even now, seeing stills of Cusack from the ‘80s-early 2000s, revisiting his films from that time, I’m struck with—what is this feeling? Is this pain? Is it pleasure?

[The crowd shouts in unison]: IT’S HORNINESS.

Grosse Pointe Blank is many things: a comedic shoot-em-up; a satire of capitalism; a critique of high school nostalgia that leaves room for teenage romance. It’s also a deeply horny film. There’s a potent chemistry between Cusack and Driver, on full display when their characters get close (“It’s been so long, I forget who gets tied up”), but even hotter when they’re still keeping their distance, catching up across a bar table, flirting in the verbal shorthand of people with “frightening natural chemistry” who haven’t seen each other in a decade but will know each other for the rest of their lives. Their intimacy is immediate and electric; from the moment he walks back into her life, there’s no question of if, only when.

But Cusack has chemistry with almost everyone in this film. Witness his easy rapport with long-time friend and scene partner Jeremy Piven. Their walk-and-talk reunion down the main street of Grosse Pointe is dense with character history and rhythmic banter: “I was worried you’d joined a cult or something. I half expected you to come back to town in a fennel wreath and paper pants.” “No money in it.” “Says you.” I could watch them ride around town together for hours. Then there’s the rat-a-tat bickering between Cusack and Dan Aykroyd’s rival contract killer, Mr. Grocer:

Blank: What about those two guys in a Caprice Classic outside? The word is you turned two governments on me, you turncoat.

Grocer: Me?

Blank: You.

Grocer: Go G?

Blank: Yes.

Grocer: On you?

Blank: Yes.

Grocer: Never.

On a recent episode of the You Are Good podcast, host Sarah Marshall joked that the filmmakers “figured out where Dan Aykroyd was coming from and wrote around it.” Aykroyd’s performance is very weird, very Aykroyd, almost out of place in the realism of the film; Cusack tempers him, meeting his twitchy, punny wordplay with his own rapid but more grounded speech. In short, they vibe.

This is in part a function of the character—as a professional hitman with no personal ties, Martin Blank (get it?) is by necessity a cipher. His survival depends on reading the room. By the filmmakers’ own description, he’s also a psychopath, with the superficial charm and pathological dishonesty that entails. But Blank’s responsiveness and articulate wit are all Cusack. Next time you see a John Cusack film, watch how he watches his scene partners. He tracks their movements and scans their faces, seeming to listen with his eyes, so that even when the camera is on him, the focus is on them. Heck, just picture the Say Anything poster, not Lloyd Dobler hoisting the boombox, but Lloyd Dobler with his arm around a foregrounded Diane Court, smiling and staring like it’s his job to let her shine.

Cusack excels in meaningful looks, as seen in every relationship in Grosse Pointe Blank, from Martin’s sessions with his therapist (a delightfully nervous Alan Arkin) to arguments with his assistant Marcella (the brilliant Joan Cusack, stealing every second of screen time she gets) to a few intense moments spent staring into the eyes of a former classmate’s infant son. Even the brief scene between Martin and his high school English teacher (stage and character actress Belita Moreno), who, he conveniently runs into when he stops by his old school, bristles with heat. “Are you still inflicting that horrible Ethan Frome damage?” he asks. “That’s a horrible book.” “That’s a very nice tie you have on,” she says. “You look like a mortician.” And the way he smiles at her with that bowknot mouth, you wonder what inappropriate flirtations must have occurred 10 years prior. 

In the Paula Span profile, a then 24-year-old Cusack recalls his own high school career as “a perpetual underachiever” who “could scarcely rouse himself to pull C’s ‘when it came to reading Ethan Frome. Or algebra.’” Despite the obvious echoes, Cusack is cagey about how much of himself is in his most famous roles. In a September 2020 interview for the New York Times, David Marchese asks, “How close was the connection between what people saw in your characters and how you saw yourself?” Does Cusack understand his own persona? Speaking specifically to Say Anything, Cusack concedes, “That persona thing might be about me just getting a job in a romantic comedy and trying to put something original in there. Perhaps in a way, I had my own brand. I don’t like to think that, but maybe I did. I would have denied it, because that would be pretty unartistic.”

Is it unartistic to borrow from one’s real life to inform one’s character, or is it acting? Marchese insists that Cusack’s “commercial brand” is romantic comedies, but his best performances are in edgier roles: the conflicted young con man in The Grifters; the ambitious, abusive puppeteer in Being John Malkovich; Rob in High Fidelity, whom Cusack calls “a passive-aggressive womanizer” and I call “every sadsack narcissist I dated in my 20s, but hey he’s John Cusack so I’d still go home with him.” In all of these films—maybe especially in Grosse Pointe Blank, a film about an unrepentant killer that depends on an engaging lead, with a script and cast influenced by his own teenage years—Cusack never fully disappears into the role. But that’s part of the point. His performance is seductive whether he’s flirting with a teacher or stabbing a guy in the neck with a pen. If Martin Blank is a psychopath, he’s a PILF.

On the occasion of her little brother getting a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, Joan Cusack described him as “a man that, if you’re lucky enough to be in his sights, will suddenly shorten his 6’3” frame by spreading his feet apart to look you in the eye and make you feel like the star—every time.” This considerate attention, this shifting the spotlight to the person he’s with, is what sells John Cusack performances even, or especially, when it’s impossible to forget you’re watching John Cusack act.

Of course, “Pay attention to your scene partner” is a pretty basic tenet of the craft. It’s also the genesis of crushes, at least the big ones I nursed from Josh G. in fifth grade through the great unrequited loves of young adulthood. If a boy paid attention to me, I became infatuated with him. It didn’t take much for me to fall for Jeffrey at the Video Store: he was a hot nerd who talked to me about movies and seemed to care what I had to say. I didn’t know much about him beyond what I gleaned from our transactional conversations and the time I looked him up in old copies of the yearbook after I learned he had gone to the same high school five years before me (he was a theater program star, of course). To crush is to project your heart’s desires onto an imagined version of someone else. Jeffrey at the Video Store was marginally more within my reach than John Cusack ever was, but their function in my life was the same. 

Like crushes, many of the most meaningful films in my life are ones I imprinted on as a teenager. My own personal desert island list is full of ‘90s indie favorites like Grosse Pointe Blank and Rushmore, and romantic comedies like Nora Ephron’s You’ve Got Mail. In one of the latter’s many typing scenes, Kathleen Kelly (Meg Ryan) instant messages her anonymous AOL boyfriend Joe Fox (Tom Hanks), “What is it with men and The Godfather?” His response: “The Godfather is the I Ching. The Godfather is the sum of all wisdom. The Godfather is the answer to any question: What should I pack for my summer vacation? Leave the gun, take the cannoli. What day of the week is it? Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Wednesday. And the answer to your question is: Go to the mattresses.” 

This, to me, is the definition of a desert island film: a foundational text, a perennial source of comfort, a go-to reference that lives, in the parlance of today’s youth and the adults who want to be like them, rent-free in one’s brain. I haven’t seen The Godfather since I was trying to impress my freshman year dorm crush (now a successful film editor—I have great taste in crushes, not to brag), but I watch You’ve Got Mail once a year. The heart wants what it wants, and sometimes, usually around Christmas, mine wants Meg Ryan in a turtleneck, Tom Hanks putting her out of business, and also Steve Zahn is there. Does a desert island film have to be “good?” I don’t want to get into a semantic argument over it, I just want the vibes.

To be clear, Grosse Pointe Blank is a very good film, one of the sharpest comedies of its era, with a stacked supporting cast, fun action sequences, and a career-best performance from John Cusack. It’s also eminently quotable, full of lines and intonations that have become part of my vocabulary over the years. Driver’s brogueish “Y’can’t come in.” Piven’s operatic “Ten. YEARS. TEN years!” The way Cusack says “Oh hi” when he runs into the G men in the bathroom, a greeting I repeat every time I catch one of my pets doing something untoward.

The screenplay was a collaboration between Cusack, his high school buddies/writing partners Steve Pink and D. V. DeVincentis, and director George Armitage, based on but diverging significantly from an original screenplay by first-and-only-time screenwriter Thomas Anthony Jankiewicz. The filmmakers tweaked Jankiewicz’s script to suit their vision of a social satire examining the “American dream mythology,” as Cusack has said, “the values that we internalize that, on closer examination, you know, could be considered insane.” They also improvised while filming, pulling in lines from previous drafts and encouraging actors to make their own moves; Joan Cusack came up with much of Marcella’s dialogue on the spot, and Minnie Driver surprised John Cusack with the impulsive kiss when Debi and Martin first reunite. The result is a film that feels in control, but one over-correction away from veering into absurdity. It’s thrilling to watch, even after all these years.

Give it the Joe Fox Q&A treatment:

What should I do today? Try not to kill anybody.

Got a good soup recipe? You put the chicken in, you gotta add other flavors. Carrots and celery are just a base of a soup!

Why do I still sometimes have hurt feelings over people who don’t really exist? You’re a fuckin’ psycho.

The last time I saw Jeffrey from the Video Store was in line for a matinee of The Phantom Menace, opening week 1999. I was playing hooky with some friends from school; he was on his third or fourth viewing in a row (hot). He recognized me and said hello first, which gave me a lot of cred with my fellow choir virgins. For days afterwards, I planned my approach: go to the video store on a Friday after school. Start a normal conversation about a movie we both liked. Throw in a casual, “Hey, I know from running into you at that movie theater that you also like to see movies in theaters, would you maybe want to go to a movie theater together some time?!” When I finally psyched myself up and went back to the store, the owner was behind the counter. Jeffrey was gone for good. Quit. Moved down to LA to try to make it as a filmmaker. 

For a time, I looked him up online once every year or so, visiting the website for his self-released debut film, squinting at shadowy pictures he included of himself. He cut his hair and grew a soul patch (I did not care for that). Most recently, it looks like he completed a second feature-length film, a supernatural-psychological mermaid thriller(!) released direct-to-VOD in 2019. Good for Jeffrey! He’s living some version of his dream; I suppose I am, too, though not the one where we’re making out in front of the endcap display for Ghoulies IV. A year past my own 20-year high school reunion, those intense teenage feelings are still accessible, if significantly dampened by time. A person can experience genuine heartbreak over someone they invented, idealized. John Cusack never broke my heart, but his best performances play on the knowledge that he could if he wanted to. Or he could kill me in my sleep.