Barry's Ode to John Cusack

June 24, 2007

John CusackThe seemingly effortless, natural approach John Cusack brings to his roles is both a familiar stock in trade and part of what makes him such a delight to watch. His onscreen persona (quirky, insecure, and utterly likeable) can be witnessed in his most famous films, like Say Anything and High Fidelity, but really, the guy never seems to be acting at all. Only in certain films like Cradle Will Rock (where he played Nelson Rockefeller) or the bizarre, brilliant Being John Malkovich, do we see him embody roles outside of audience expectations (and wonderfully, at that). Yet, his unpretentious, from-the-hip acting style conceals what a gifted, thoughtful performer he is. Cusack makes his dialogue sound like spontaneous bursts of thought and not the carefully scripted dialogue it is and he has proven to be believable in nearly every genre of film.

With the release of 1408 (which has already been acclaimed as one of his best performances), let's look at Cusack's finest hours, his few unsuccessful films and the gems you may not have seen.


John Cusack's Best

The Grifters
Everything about this nasty, thrilling and razor sharp con-artist thriller sparkles and Cusack's note-perfect turn is only one of the films' finest (Oscar-nominated co-stars Anjelica Huston and Annette Bening are also superb). Yet, this was Cusack's first "grown-up" role and few actors can convey a man both cocky, self-assured and sinking into the darkness as well as Cusack does here.

Being John Malkovich
Catherine Keener's performance in Charlie Kaufman's unclassifiable, remarkably original comedy was the only one honored at award time. The truth is that a nearly unrecognizable Cusack and an even more deglamourized (and never better) Cameron Diaz give the film its bittersweet soul. The film is surreal from the first frame but Cusack and Diaz's heartfelt turns make this strange world real.

Say Anything
Is there a teen character from an 80's comedy more loveable, heartsick, offbeat and adorable than Lloyd Dobler? I can think of a few runner-ups, but Cusack's career-making, definitive performance is still a marvel. There's a lot of Dobler in all of us, which makes his geeky but moving everyman such a rich figure. Forget the image of Cusack holding up the boombox - watching him teach Ione Skye's character how to drive is a thing of beauty.

Bullets Over Broadway / Shadows and Fog
Cusack is one of the best actors to ever work for Woody Allen and his work in these two gems is first-rate. The former is a period farce and Cusack (embodying the Woodman in more ways than one) is hilarious. The latter is a gorgeous, thrilling tribute to Fritz Lang (shot in black and white), with Cusack's closing scene with John Malkovich a memorable highlight.

High Fidelity
Some would put this at the top of the list, with Cusack embodying the bitter spirit of Nick Hornby's novel perfectly. The film found an audience after a brief run in theaters and for a few reasons - Cusack's charismatic work, Jack Black's breakout performance and a hilarious turn by Tim Robbins (channeling, of all people, Steven Seagal).

Eight Men Out
This depiction of the infamous "Black Sox" scandal is an ensemble piece (with Cusack co-starring with D.B. Sweeney, Charlie Sheen and David Strathairn, among others), but his work is as good as anyone's in this excellent, underrated baseball movie. John Sayles' film is devastating and one of the best sports films ever made.

Pushing Tin
Another one of Cusack's put-upon, you-know-someone-like-this everymen, alongside a perfectly odd Billy Bob Thornton and terrific supporting turns by Angelina Jolie and Cate Blanchett. The film isn't seamless and goes on a bit too long, but, for fans of Cusack and rather un-formulaic Hollywood comedies, there's a lot here to treasure.

Grosse Point Blank
The movie is more self-consciously hip than necessary but Cusack's unique approach to his role (of a hitman attending his high school reunion) is golden. Some great scenes sprinkled throughout this odd, likeable black comedy and the supporting cast is tops.

Romantic comedies don't get a lot sweeter than this. Cusack and (frequent co-star and friend) Jeremy Piven do a lot to make this work. Yeah, the ladies (Kate Beckinsale and Molly Shannon) are good too, but Cusack's crazily driven Romeo, Piven's terrific take on the inevitable Best Friend role, Eugene Levy's funny cameo and John Corbett's Yanni-esque character are the big draws here.


John Cusack's Worst

Con Air
This one has a following, so I'll tread lightly. Cusack didn't look out of place in a western ("The Jack Bull"), a horror movie ("Identity"), a WWII epic ("The Thin Red Line") or as a cartoon ("Anastasia"), but as a guns-out action hero in a Jerry Bruckheimer movie?! The was beneath Cusack, who should've known better…but then, so did Nicolas Cage, John Malkovich, Steve Buscemi, Ving Rhames and everyone else in this!

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil
That the film was just barely faithful to the riveting bestseller it's based on was not the main problem; Clint Eastwood's attractively filmed, sometimes fun but mostly endless mishap has a courtroom sequence that has no pulse and drags the movie through a muck of boredom. Cusack works hard in this, so does Kevin Spacey, but, a few good moments aside, the movie is a zestless snoozer.

Must Love Dogs
The worst romantic comedy Cusack has ever starred in. He's phoning it in here, as is Diane Lane (they have no chemistry). The screenplay is sitcom-ready, though at least Cusack isn't in the film's worst scene: a sing-along with Christopher Plummer that won't remind you of "The Sound of Music" but could make your head explode.

One Crazy Summer
"Better off Dead" is a classic Cusack cult comedy (and an amusing romp at that) but his follow-up with Savage Steve Holland is a clunker. I remembered it fondly- seeing it now is painful. Every joke gets repeated at least three times, and, unlike the clever "Better Off Dead", this one is just stupid.

Hot Pursuit
The worst of Cusack's 80's comedies, this one should've worked. The character and plot are promising, but it goes bad after 15 minutes. The "Rambo"-like climax, with Cusack packing heat and taking on Ben Stiller (in an ill-advised straight turn) is meant to be taken seriously, but the bad laughs it elicits are the only chuckles in the movie.


Better Off Dead
Grosse Point Blank
The Ice Harvest
The Journey of Natty Gann
The Sure Thing


(Definitive Dobler-esque Cusack roles)

America's Sweethearts
Better Off Dead
Grosse Point Blank
High Fidelity
Hot Pursuit
Must Love Dogs
One Crazy Summer
Pushing Tin
Say Anything
The Sure Thing


Bob Roberts
Broadcast News
Map of the Human Heart
The Player
Stand By Me
This is My Father

Cusack, like Jeff Bridges and Kurt Russell, is forever underrated and has yet to receive an Academy Award for his work. His finest performance may be ahead of him but, for now, Cusack has established a catalog of greatest hits that his fans and audiences continue to groove to.

Find more posts: Editorial, Hype, Opinions



I think this Ode to John Cusack is missing one important film on the Best Of section. Cusack was excellent in Runaway Jury.

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I think 'Identity' should be in the list also. He's great in that one too.

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runaway jury anyone?

Harlan on Dec 7, 2009

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