John Cusack: From So Cool To Sad Sack?
The idea hit me first when I was watching John Cusack in 2012. Yes, it was weird that the actor had lent himself to a role that required him to shout and fake-drive a lot against blue screen, but what was stranger was that even his barely sketched character seemed cribbed from his recent films: he played a limo driver, as he did in Identity, and an author, as in 1408 and Martian Child, who tried to bond with his estranged progeny by taking them on a trip, kinda like in The Contract and Grace Is Gone. But, sufficiently mindblown by 2012's spectacle and moments of giraffe emotion, I forgot about the seeming sameness. That was, until this week's Hot Tub Time Machine.
The movie, while frequently hilarious, still manages to conform to a strong, strange and rather dark Cusack recent-career thru-line. That we meet him in Hot Tub as he's coming home to find his girlfriend has left with all his possessions positively invites reflection on his role choices over the past decade. And that the movie has him traveling back to a light-hearted Better Off Dead-style version of the 1980s demands we remember his goofier, sunnier days. So why is it that this affable and ever-appealing actor now almost always chooses scripts whose starting point has him dumped -- or worse?
After establishing himself as the guy guys wanted to be and the guy girls wanted to marry, largely on the strength of The Sure Thing and Say Anything, three of Cusack's best-received films in the 1990s -- Bullets Over Broadway, Pushing Tin and Being John Malkovich -- had him as a cheating cad. Not exactly the doting Lloyd Dobler we'd imagined him becoming. But at least the films depicted him as a dude so desirable he was juggling the ladies. Then, 10 years ago, things started changing:
1. High Fidelity (2000) -- Cusack enters the film as he's dumped by his girlfriend. The rest of the film will see him obsess over such break-ups.
2. America's Sweethearts (2001) -- Cusack enters the film in the middle of an acrimonious marriage breakdown with Catherine Zeta-Jones, who he'd already broken up with in High Fidelity.
[In Cusack's immediate follow up films, we find dysfunctional threads -- relying on fate to ruin his engagement in Serendipity, cheating on his wife while nurturing young artist Adolf Hitler in Max, avenging his lover's murdered sister in Runaway Jury, divorced and forlorn in Must Love Dogs - that'd then percolate and bubble into every role.]
3. The Ice Harvest (2005) -- Cusack enters the film as a recently divorced, cynical mob lawyer who rips off a gangster.
4. The Contract (2006) -- Cusack enters the film as a recently widowed teacher who tries to bond with his estranged son by taking him into the wilderness, where he gets in the way of Morgan Freeman's hitman.
5. Grace Is Gone (2007) -- Cusack enters the film happily married but that soon changes when his soldier wife is killed in Iraq. And so he hits the road with the two daughters he doesn't quite understand.
6. 1408 (2007) -- Cusack enters the film as an author who's become estranged from his wife following the death of their daughter.
7. Martian Child (2007) -- Cusack enters the film as a recently widowed author who finds redemption by trying to adopt an alienated young kid.
8. War, Inc (2008) -- Cusack enters the film as a hitman haunted by the murder of his wife and the abduction of his daughter.
9. 2012 (2009) -- Cusack enters the film a limo-driving author estranged from his ex-wife (played by Amanda Peet, co-star of Identity and Martian Child) who takes his disaffected kids into wilderness danger. The world will have to end for them to be reunited.
Now Hot Tub, where his only chance at romantic redemption is time travel. Next up for Cusack is the thriller The Factory. The premise has him as a cop who's tracking a serial killer until the disappearance of his daughter. Other details are sketchy but five will get you ten that his character's also recently widowed/divorced (and maybe played by Amanda Peet in flashback).
So, the question perhaps isn't, as posed by Cusack in High Fidelity's opener, "What came first, the music or the misery?", but rather, "What came first, Cusack's pain or the rain?"