Of course, every movie star tries to sell a persona, and audience expectations can discourage stars from leaving their comfort zones. But what if the audience struggles to separate the star from the persona? Well, that's how an '80s heartthrob winds up fighting the Mayan calendar and starring in movies co-produced by 50 Cent.
Let me be clear: I'm a fan of John Cusack. I like the sarcastic bent he brings to stories of romantic angst. He's delivered award-worthy performances as a lovesick teen on the verge of adulthood in Say Anything... and a lovesick thirtysomething on the verge of middle age in High Fidelity. He's cultivated a lovable smugness in subversive comedies like Better Off Dead and Grosse Pointe Blank, and he's stood out as a quirky presence in ensemble films like Eight Men Out and Con Air. And he has some intriguing projects in the pipeline like The Paperboy, Lee Daniels' follow-up to Precious. It's unfair that his fame has consistently outstripped his popularity, particularly amongst his industry peers - despite appearing in a steady stream of films since the age of 15, Cusack has yet to be nominated for an Oscar or a SAG Award. Squint and you might see a bias against Cusack's perceived lack of range, but that strikes me as an odd conclusion given his diverse filmography.
A year after charming the class valedictorian in Say Anything..., Cusack took a swerve into much darker territory with The Grifters (1990), based on the 1963 pulp noir by novelist Jim Thompson. Cusack reportedly read the book as a teen and immediately tried to option the material with himself as the conflicted son of a con artist (Anjelica Huston) sliding down the same dubious career path. It's easy to see why the project took a while to develop. Though it contains elements of black comedy, The Grifters is a relentlessly bleak film incorporating torture, murder, suggestions of incest, and copious Annette Bening nudity. While Cusack has the charisma of a con man, he lacks the gravitas to pull off the hard-boiled dialogue, much of it borrowed word-for-word from Thompson's book. His nonchalant approach to the role doesn't pay off until the film's climax, as his cool expression cannot conceal the extreme heartbreak and disillusionment from the inevitable collision between his grifting girlfriend (Bening) and his two-timing mother. Despite its tonal confusion, The Grifters showed Cusack's willingness to stretch himself and sowed the seeds of future collaboration with the film's director, Steven Frears, who would re-team with the actor a decade later for High Fidelity.
It's interesting to note that Cusack's most memorable performances appear in films where the screenwriter (or writer-director) maintains a strong authorial presence. That list includes Cameron Crowe, Nick Hornby, and Charlie Kaufman, whose Being John Malkovich (1999) takes the actor's lovelorn puppy-dog persona and spins it into a sweaty mess of dumpy desperation. As unemployed puppeteer Craig Schwartz , Cusack goes all-out with a stringy ponytail and scruffy goatee combo that makes him look like one of Rasputin's relatives. His eagerness to abuse others in his unrequited pursuit of co-worker Maxine (Catherine Keener) is both pitiable and slimy, and includes taking over the thoughts and actions of actor John Malkovich via a magic portal into the esteemed thespian's mind. It's weird to say that Malkovich steals the movie considering his name's in the damn title, but it's true. The deconstruction of Cusack's image definitely owes something to Malkovich's own fine-tuned impersonation once Craig takes up permanent residence in Malkovich's body and exploits his celebrity to validate puppetry as a fine art. But credit Cusack for keeping the film's absurd conceit grounded in his character's overreaching hubris. Even as Craig becomes totally irredeemable - at one point his locks his wife Lotte (an equally un recognizable Cameron Diaz) in a monkey cage - there's still a whiff of tragedy in his story.
Since the turn of the millennium, Cusack's ambiguously likable qualities have been smoothed out in films like Identity (2003), where the actor inhabits the reluctant-hero archetype that continues to pop up in his more recent projects. As a former cop-turned-limo driver, he joins 10 strangers stranded at a desert motel during a flash flood and watches as they are gradually picked off by an unseen murderer. Identity packs a lot into its short runtime, piling on the twists and tension in an inspired homage to the classic Agatha Christie adaptation And Then There Were None. The connection between the events at the motel and the frame story of a psychologist seeking a stay of execution for a serial killer is not as big of a surprise in a post-United States of Tara world, but it's all made worthwhile by a final revelation that is simultaneously corny and brilliant. Cusack's performance benefits from the fact that all the other characters are archetypes too, as well as the film's sly sense of humor. The actors are almost like interchangeable parts doing their bit to propel the story toward the next twist of fate.
There's self-aware, and then there's Hot Tub Time Machine (2010), a throwback to the type of kooky, ribald comedies that launched Cusack's career. Along with two friends (Craig Robinson and Rob Corrdry) and his nephew (Clark Duke), he's transported back to 1986 during an attempt to relive their wild teenage days at a run-down alpine resort. Despite a transparent premise/built-in excuse for recycling '80s jokes and clichés - "I hate this decade!" complains Cusack after his Jacuzzi-assisted time warp - the film gets a big boost from the immensely likable cast. And though there are plenty of dud scenes in the film's haphazard individual plotlines, its gets a lot of mileage from wonderfully executed running gags. Few of them, however, include Cusack, who's wasted as a generic Everyman made to repeat a bad breakup (in the movie's logic, each adult must re-enact one of their most embarrassing teenage experiences so as not to disrupt their future) with his high school flame. His director and frequent creative partner, Steve Pink, doesn't give him much to do but dryly arch his eyebrows at all the wacky shenanigans, and the script tries to wedge in a carpe diem lesson only to end with a standard wish fulfillment scenario. The whole cast gives it the old college try but, as strange as it sounds, Hot Tub Time Machine could stand to be even more shallow than it is.