it's a sad day when an actor who's totally, beautifully in touch with his dark side finds himself stuck in a movie that's scared of its own shadow. That's the sorry predicament of John Cusack in George Armitage's "Grosse Pointe Blank," which sets out to be a stylish hybrid of black comedy, action movie and love story and ends up being a shining sunbeam -- albeit a Ray-Ban-tinted one -- about trust and redemption. Everywhere you look, there's a symbol: Cusack's character, a killer for hire, is named Martin Blank -- think that might be because he's just a mere shell of a man reflecting the chaos around him?
As black comedies go, "Grosse Pointe Blank" is just sort of gray. Martin, who's returning to his hometown (after which the movie is titled) to investigate a possible job, figures he might drop in on his 10th high school reunion, and maybe even engineer an assignation with Debi (Minnie Driver), the woman he stood up on prom night lo these many years ago. He returns to his family home, only to find it's been replaced by a convenience store. He visits his mother, who's been placed in an institution, and because she's so out of it, she doesn't recognize him and actually comes onto him. But those are the least of Martin's problems: He's also being pursued by hit men himself, and it turns out that the guy he's been assigned to kill is someone he'd much rather keep alive.
The problem is that Cusack seems trapped in the wrong movie. His Martin Blank is deliciously in touch with his own bad self, and only a small handful of his costars -- sister Joan Cusack as Marcella, Martin's efficient woman Friday, Dan Aykroyd as his competitor in the killing biz and Alan Arkin as his reluctant shrink -- can stand up to him. The biggest glitch is Driver as the supposedly with-it, brainy DJ who just never could get it together to leave old Grosse Pointe. (Wouldn't that tell you something?) In their love scenes, Cusack does all the work, giving her the melting Bambi eyes, the cupid's bow pout, the quizzical look that pleads, "Love me only if you dare." But his mating dance is so awkward and twitchy that it's also strangely affecting -- he seems to be burning off thousands of calories of nervous energy just by looking into her eyes. Driver responds with a complementary twitchiness, but it comes off as only an odd collection of tics. In her angry scenes, you know she's pissed off when you see her curls aquiver and her jaw set just so.
The script -- written by a committee of Tom Jankiewicz, D.V. DeVincentis, Steve Pink and Cusack himself -- has its share of bristling little jokes. In one early scene, after Marcella has tried to persuade Martin to drop in on the reunion just for kicks, he wonders how to respond to all those dopey questions about what he's been up to all these years. "What am I going to say? I killed the president of Paraguay with a fork. What did you do?" It's not long, though, before "Grosse Pointe Blank" starts turning patchy and dull. Even the reunion scene, which should be the one most full of laughs, waddles along like a pooped-out windup toy.
But the catch -- the really troubling thing about "Grosse Pointe Blank," and the thrilling thing -- is how sexy Cusack's Martin Blank is. His eyebrows telegraph sin in 12 languages. When Driver slaps him across the face, hard, his face lights up with a blissed-out cartoon grin -- what would he do, you wonder, if she'd drawn blood? In the movie's pivotal scene, he steals away from the reunion to check out his old locker. Just as he's picking it open for old time's sake, he's jumped by a killer who's been hired to take him out. In their scuffle -- brilliantly choreographed to English Beat's "Mirror in the Bathroom," itself a masterpiece of hyperactive menace -- Cusack kicks into overdrive, slamming the thug against a locker in a way that seems superhuman and impossible, given Cusack's luminous heart-shaped face. In the movie's sickest, wickedest joke, Martin stabs his attacker in the throat with the ball-point pen another reunion attendee has given him, and the movement is so precise, so sudden, so resolute that it stuns you. As his character's written, Martin Blank wants us to believe he isn't a killer at heart. But Cusack, in playing him, hunts him down pitilessly and holds a knife up to his face like a mirror. "Liar," he says -- and the charge sticks.
Of course, only a wimp like Driver's Debi would stumble upon Martin at that crucial moment, see the corpse slumped against the locker, and flee in shock and disbelief, but that's "Grosse Pointe Blank" for you. In the movie's final shot, Cusack and Driver, reconciled, head out of the tiny, stifling town in a convertible, suddenly free from the tyranny and evil of Blank's old life. He's kicked the killing habit and gotten right into the snuggling one, trading a world of high-tech guns and gizmos for one that will surely offer nothing but complete and utter boredom. After Cusack's shown us the killer inside, Martin's reform isn't a triumph; it's devastating. His sweet killer's soul has been crushed. Like a snake, he's slipped out of his lustrous bad old skin and left it behind, and by that point, "Grosse Pointe Blank" has deflated itself, and us too. We're like Tallulah Bankhead, bereft upon watching Jean Cocteau's "Beauty and the Beast." After the sexy, troubled monster morphed into clean-as-a-whistle Jean Marais, all she could say was, "Give me back my beast."