Wednesday, May 4, 2011

FIRST IMPRESSION: John Cusack


When a career spans more than twenty years it is very easy to lose sight of the beginning. Most times people will even miss it all together and walk in during the middle. If they like what they see they’ll usually play catch up and view the things they missed. If they don’t then they’ll move on to the next person that catches their eye and holds their attention. However, when you’re there from the beginning, which is a relative term encompassing a time span of early work, there is a relationship that develops with the performer. As time goes on the relationship strengthens or weakens, but that initial foundation remains intact. Depending on when its established the viewer can even connect and relate on different levels with the characters at different times of their life. When that happens it’s a clear sign that the actor has done their job and the character has a dynamic, universal appeal. John Cusack’s performance as Lane Meyer – the heartbroken, suicidal, goofball in Savage Steve Holland’s Better Off Dead… (1985) is one of those characters.

Seeing the film as a small child, Lane’s antics were comical and his approach to things was eccentric, almost like a real life cartoon character. Add into that the dramatically more bizarre characters around him: Charles De Mar, his misguided, well intentioned best friend, Ricky Smith, his perverted shut-in neighbor, Badger, his highly intelligent, emotionally mature kid brother, and the Chinese drag racing brothers and the movie does a good job of disguising it’s dark undertones. The themes of emotional development, alienation, depression, and suicidal overreaction that plague many teenagers around the world only resonates with viewers who can relate to them. From that perspective Lane not only appears normal, but comes off as an older brother figure to any viewer under the age of ten.


Watching the film again as a teenager, or an adult who has gone through that period of life, the comedy is still there, but Lane becomes a more identifiable character. Unless you connect with his adversary, Roy Stalin, in which case you probably wouldn’t like or understand the movie, Lane possesses many qualities and outlooks that people gravitate towards. Even his relationship with his parents transcends age and understanding. The mother is kind and caring, but also clueless and unresponsive. The father is authoritative and demanding, but also confused and has trouble relating. It’s a typical youthful situation with a chaotic, comedic backdrop that not everyone could have pulled off.

After a few small supporting roles in films such as Class (1983) and Sixteen Candles (1984), Cusack was cast as the male lead in The Sure Thing (1985). Teetering on the edge of the famed “Brat Pack” of the 1980s, he began to carve out his own niche in cinema. By straying from the pack, which usually worked ensemble in one configuration or another, Cusack was able to develop his leading man talents. His work in comedies, where success is based on timing and delivery, allowed Cusack to make a smooth transition into more dramatic roles. Even in a minor or supporting role, such as Denny Lachance in Stand by Me (1986), his strength and discipline as an actor keeps the focus on the scene and character rather than the performer.

Throughout his career Cusack has transitioned successfully from comedy to drama and ultimately to thrillers, with some spillover in action. Romantic leads (America’s Sweethearts (2001), Serendipity (2001)), conmen (Money for Nothing (1993), The Grifters (1990), Tapeheads (1988)), and tormented protagonists (1408 (2007), Being John Malkovich (1999)) are his forte in particular. In Grosse Pointe Blank (1997) he was able to combine all of those inherent attributes into the role of Martin Q. Blank, a lovelorn hit man struggling with his feelings brought up by attending his ten year high school reunion. In many regards it is the ultimate John Cusack film. 


However, to many people he will forever be the dumped boyfriend. There are strong parallels of heartbreak between many of his films. Must Love Dogs (2005), High Fidelity (2000), Say Anything… (1989), Hot Pursuit (1987), and One Crazy Summer (1986) – also directed by Savage Steve Holland all lead back to Lane Meyer in Better Off Dead… (1985).

For those of you who have never seen the film it can be viewed here in its entirety, for FREE. Enjoy!

"The crowd swells with anticipation as the light turns green."

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