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?"


  • M. Tolkin says:

    Dear Michael,
    You know close to nothing about H'wood. About filmmaking. About time travel. Or about John Cusack.
    You analysis of Mr. Cusack's pattern-driven career is as useful as asking why wasn't he cast in a Kurosawa movie.
    If you meet John Cusack one day, it's the day you'll be embarrassed.
    Grow up and stop rubbish-writing.

  • Martini Shark says:

    We understand, as Mr. Cuscak's PR rep, that you have the need to defend Johnny, but given the list given does in fact show similarities with a large number of the roles he accepts I'm not sure this is an indictment to Michael Adams' knowledge on John Cusack, Hollywood, or movie making.
    But I will agree, he does not know shit bout time travel -- that much is obvious.

  • Michael Adams says:

    That's what you think, Mr Shark
    == laser-posted from my Holoberry, 11/4/2056

  • SunnydaZe says:

    Wow! Question - Does Miley still have her wig???

  • Ben says:

    If this is anyone other than the M Tolkin responsible for writing 'Gleaming the Cube' I will be disappointed.

  • hus tomte says:

    HTTM is definitely a movie to go see if you want to laugh a lot. I was lucky to catch a screening last week. Have you seen "The You Know Who's" music video for Hot Tub Time Machine ?

  • Martini Shark says:

    Too cool Mike! Say, is there an antique store with a Cusack retrospective on a 14G Lobe-chip? I have an apology gift I need for Tolkin.

  • Marsha says:

    Actually, Martini Shark, M Tolkin's comment was pretty much identical to my reaction to this piece. And I'm sorry to disappoint you, but I'm not Cusack's PR rep. Closest I've ever gotten to the guy is the condo I used to rent in Chicago's West Loop.
    But hey, if you feel the need to put down those who disagree with you so vehemently, whatever.

  • cusack moive lover says:

    i agree with the man.. i think all his movies are something that's in his life that he is dealing with and as they say art is portray real life so .. yep but eh its his life.. and if he wants to keep making those movies ill be watching them =) who cares if he is not romantic really >> i didn't really get say anything and such.. i did like some of his 80's movies but mostly stuff like jack the bull and such was good

  • new fan says:

    interesting, indeed! i'm just thinking that it's just because he wants to break away from those romantic comedy roles he's been known for. so maybe if he has a living love interest, he's just going to be lloyd dobler or rob gordon all over, again. =/
    i don't really see why he keeps hating on his early projects (the ones that made him a household name, basically) but then again, i doubt there's nobody who doesn't regret at least one thing they did when they were younger.

  • Weird... I just came across your site by searching for 'financial spreadbetting' on Google. But I haven't found any articles about that on here?

  • Zwolf says:

    Wow this dink has been in a lot of $hitty movies. Is it just a coincidence that he plays half-wits in all of these movies or is that type casting? Maybe he just brings that half-wit flavor to the roles.

  • I disagree with the comment above as I thought he was quite good in 2012.