John Cusack Is The Embodiment of Gen X: Perpetually Out of Place, Perpetually Out Of Time

Growing up, I never identified with Keanu Reeves. I appreciated that he was Asian, but he was too pretty, his persona too undeveloped and predicated on his ability to express surprise and awe. I was wired differently. I do not know that I was ever unaffected enough to express surprise and awe. Growing up, my avatar was – and continues to be – John Cusack, a guy who, like Reeves, lived on the periphery of the great heights and the inevitable lows of the “Brat Pack” and whose career trajectory hit a specific niche just shy or superstardom. I do not think that was ever his aim. He’s a dedicated “outsider,” suspicious of the Hollywood star factory that would grind up a few of his contemporaries; he is too smart, too agile with language, too disinterested to strike the pose. The first time I saw him must have been as part of Anthony Michael Hall’s nerd posse in Sixteen Candlesbut the first time he made an impression was in Rob Reiner’s The Sure Thing (1985). I was thirteen in 1985 and Cusack’s Walter “Gib” Gibson had the kind of self-effacing verbosity that I wanted to cultivate, too as I moved into adolescence. I was already girl crazy at 13 and Nicolette Sheridan’s lasciviously posed swimsuited body on the VHS case was all the invitation I needed. I was hoping for a sex comedy, but what I got is Reiner’s dry run for When Harry Met Sally.

Like so many of Cusack’s characters during the first five years of his career, Gib is in that period between the end of high school and the beginning of college and, unlike his shinier contemporaries (Rob Lowe, Judd Nelson, Emilio Estevez, Andrew McCarthy) , he’s struggling with existential questions around the kind of person he wants to be. He’s promised a “sure thing” from his best friend Lance (Anthony Edwards), a woman agreeable to a meaningless sexual dalliance with neither consequence nor attachment – the only catch is he needs to find a way across the country to meet her. Circumstance forces Gib together with “up tight” Alison (Daphne Zuniga) and over the course of their travels, they predictably fall in love. Gib is still given a shot at “the sure thing,” but he demurs when she asks him if he loves her. He does the honorable thing. He’s a good person, imperfect but trying. The Sure Thing is the first time Cusack is fully Cusack. The film opens with Rod Stewart’s “Infatuation,” segues into Huey Lewis & the News ‘”Heart of Rock n’ Roll” as Gib says “consider outer space” to a potential love interest. His pick-up patter’s cadence is instantly recognizable as Cusack’s signature trait: a flow of ’80s hipster glossolalia punctuated with grand profundities and romantic longing, rhetorical questions and a charming self-effacement. You’ll find traces of it in every single thing I’ve written in the last twenty-five years.

If one were to chart the arc of Cusack’s career, one would in the process identify the lifeline of a particular type of Gen-X guy: the resourceful product of a latchkey generation, socially progressive at odds with their boomer parents, marked by the widening class and income gap in a United States devoted to preaching self-esteem even as they found themselves struggling under unrealistic expectations. Cusack’s characters are always the smartest guy in the room. They’re not, like Keanu, awestruck by revelations that happen upon them; rather, they’re philosophers and knight errants engaged in holy quests and occupied by fools and monsters. The same year as The Sure ThingCusack starred as suicidally-depressed Lane Meyer in Savage Steve Holland’s Better Off Dead, pining for another unattainable ideal while presented with a brunette alternative in gamine exchange student Monique (Diane Franklin). Broad slapstick with bouts of surrealism, it breezes along with an agreeable absurdity – one that overstays its welcome as it happens during Cusack / Holland’s second collaboration One Crazy Summer – but with this one-two punch, Cusack established himself as the avatar for disaffected, lovelorn oddballs: the ones smoking weed in the teacher’s lot, quoting Descartes and Foucault, and reading passages from Karl Marx to one another. Lane tries to kill himself multiple times throughout Better Off Dead and though his failures are played off as a joke, Cusack strums a very particular chord of melancholia and self-loathing. The image of him finding joy again, laughing in the front seat of his battered station wagon with the woman he loves more in that moment than she loves him, will be one of several enduring images from his starring role in Cameron Crowe’s debut, Say Anything in three years’ time.

After The Sure Thing’s Gib, Say Anything’s Lloyd Dobler was the next major moment of identification I felt with one of Cusack’s characters. Sixteen in 1989, Lloyd voiced my growing awareness about the fruitlessness of chasing after goals set by my parents’ culture and generation. I did not understand the totality of his manifesto then, but listening to it with the perspective of thirty disastrous years, he sounds like me at my most frustrated and disillusioned:

“I do not want to sell anything, buy anything, or process anything as a career. I do not want to sell anything bought or processed, or buy anything sold or processed, or process anything sold, bought, or processed, or repair anything sold, bought, or processed. ”

Meanwhile, the woman he loves, class valedictorian Diane Court (Ione Skye), has her future set along a traditional path: education at a prestigious college, marriage to an upstanding young man she’ll meet there, a career perhaps? Domesticity certainly. Lloyd represents for her – like Gib represented for Alison – something non-conventional, unexpected, maybe better. All of my girlfriends in high school were white. All I could ever provide for them was that same lack of conventionality, an unfamiliarity with courtship traditions, the hope that I was somehow better because I was funny and had read weird things in great quantity. I bought the soundtrack for Say Anything on cassette and discovered Cameron Crowe had written extensive liner notes for the insert. Now Cusack had indirectly introduced me to the idea that an extensive knowledge of music could help me to express what for me was still largely inexpressible. (Cusack would complete this thought when he plays record store owner Rob Gordon in Stephen Frears’ adaptation of High Fidelity.) Lloyd Dobler was hoping that there were Diane Courts in the world for misfits and outcasts and, better, because he played by Cusack, that the Dianes and Alisons might credibly benefit from the association. Crowe gets it in a scene where Lloyd’s friends Corey (Lili Taylor) and DC (Amy Brooks) ask if someone like Diane could love someone like Lloyd. They think about it for a second, and realize that not only might Diane love Lloyd, they could be poetry together.

Lloyd does not work as a character – most of Cusack’s roles do not work as characters – if Cusack for a moment appears untrue, predatory, insincere. Lloyd is not trying to “get” Diane, Lloyd loves Diane. His friends tell him they do not want to see him hurt and he tells them that he wants to get hurt. I’ve repeated that in my youth when friends have warned me about giving my heart away. For a time in my development, romantic martyrdom felt like the appropriate sacrifice for a life entirely lived. After Say Anything and a bit, but memorable, part in WWII thriller Fat Man and Little BoyCusack actively pursued Jim Thompson adaptation The Grifters starring Anjelica Huston as his not-to-be-trusted mother and Annette Bening as his also not-to-be-trusted girlfriend. A nasty bit of business, it found Cusack as a con-man, but the least of the vipers in this pit, devoted to small stakes short cons while his mom and his girl are a lot more serious about taking their marks for long, sometimes deadly rides. Cusack uses his smarts for evil in The Grifters, but he’s trying not to injure it. His comparative moral purity gets him killed. Mostly what The Grifters does is clarify Cusack’s intent through the ’90s to mature his persona from recent high-school grad, to reliable bit roles in a couple of Woody Allen movies, Altman’s The Playerand Malick’s The Thin Red Line.

In 1997, Cusack’s Grosse Point Blank casts him as a successful, but existentially despairing hitman returning for his ten-year high school reunion and the girl (Minnie Driver) he abandoned at prom a decade previous. They rekindle their romance, but there are too many loose ends from Marty’s (Cusack) past to tie up before they can move forward together. When the film opened that April, I was four months into a relationship with the woman who would become my wife, after a dating history filled with dalliances in which I was often the worst version of myself. Marty has done terrible things, including hurting the woman he loves, and has been given a chance he’s not sure he deserves to make amends. Its soundtrack – packed with The Clash, Violent Femmes, David Bowie & Queen, and The Jam – was the soundtrack of my life, too… again. I wanted what Marty wanted. I wanted forgiveness and a chance to be the person I wanted to be.

Grosse Pointe Blank
Photo: Everett Collection

Cusack destroyed me again at the end of the decade with the one-two of Being John Malkovich and High Fidelity. Cusack’s portrait of an artist humiliated by his inconsequence in Being John Malkovich, and a man trying to tell the story of his life through the cultural touchstones that he equated with his worst moments, formed a model for the straits I was about to enter. I owned my own corporation then – one I would sell when my father died because I was too depressed to continue it, and too terrified that I would live my father’s life that resulted in our estrangement and his series of heart attacks. I have no idea where Cusack was at this point in his life, but he, as he always has been, was a couple of years ahead of me and lighting the way.

I love his mature romantic comedies Serendipity and Must Love Dogs. I love his heist flick The Ice Harvesthis thriller Identityhis western where his charm becomes unctuous and sociopathic in Never Grow Old – every performance more intimate because I have so identified with this actor that I go into these films invested in them at a personal level. I loved him in We Are Not Animals (2013) where he essentially plays himself as an actor discontent with standard Hollywood fare and so takes himself to the fringes of independent filmmaking to find his joy again. Imagine my surprise when catching up with Stephen King adaptation Cell as just a matter of completion, the film that reunites Cusack with Samuel L. Jackson from their other Stephen King adaptation 1408, how Cusack served again as a cinematic mirror to my personal development. In it, he plays frustrated artist Clay (similar to his character in One Crazy Summer) who, after spending time estranged from his family in the manufacture of a doomed graphic novel, finds himself in the middle of a zombie epidemic brought about by a mysterious cell phone signal. The premise dangerously close to a shouty old man afraid of technology plot, what works is Cusack and Jackson’s chemistry and, in particular, Clay’s realization at the end of the world that the only thing that matters, the only thing that ever matters, is his family. He spends the film crossing the ravaged country not in sure of a “sure thing” in the sense of sex with no strings attached, but a “sure thing” in the form of a wife who loves him and a son who misses him. It has a great ending, too, the kind of ending that Spielberg’s Minority Report should have had, a final image of reunion and also of despair that encapsulates perfectly the sort of persona Cusack has crafted through a rich and fascinating career. He’s the model of someone perpetually out of place and out of time. He’s well overdue for a critical revision.

Walter Chaw is the Senior Film Critic for His book on the films of Walter Hill, with introduction by James Ellroy, is now available for pre-order. His monograph for the 1988 film MIRACLE MILE is available now.

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