Friday, April 16, 2010

Head back to the 1980s with John Cusack

John Cusack is currently starring in “Hot Tub Time Machine,” which, as you may have guessed, is a political thriller that takes the Bush administration to task. No wait, that was “Green Zone.” “Hot Tub Time Machine” sends three 40-something guys back to their youthful heydays.

I saw the film last weekend and it is a lot of fun, but, as of today, it is no longer playing in the Mount Washington Valley. Instead of gushing about a film you can no longer see, let me direct you to some of Cusack's back catalog.

“Hot Tub Time Machine,” which was produced by Cusack's production company and directed by his friend and frequent collaborator Steve Pink, is basically a throwback to the teen romantic comedies that helped make Cusack a star in the 1980s.

The early 1980s began with a few small roles for Cusack, most memorably in “Sixteen Candles,” before he graduated to lead roles. By 1986, the year that “Hot Tub Time Machine” sends him back to, Cusack starred in three teen comedies, co-starred in the Disney adventure film “The Journey of Natty Gann” and had a cameo as the dead brother in “Stand By Me.”

His first starring role was in 1985's “The Sure Thing,” a title that makes it seem like just another of the many “Porky's” knock-offs that were prevalent in the early 1980s. The film, director Rob Reiner's follow up to his smashing directorial debut, “This is Spinal Tap,” is better than its title.

While the film has the requisite T and A, it isn't about them. It is essentially a reworking of 1934's “It Happened One Night,” generally regarded as the template for all romantic comedies to follow. Two college students (Cusack and Daphne Zuniga) who hate each other reluctantly hit the road together for California. He has been promised a sure thing. She has a fiance waiting for her. Naturally, their hatred melts away to love. It is low-key, sweet and a good early showcase of Cusack easygoing charm.

Later in 1985, Cusack starred in “Better Off Dead,” the first of two collaborations with writer/director Savage Steve Holland. Cusack's Lane Meyers goes suicidal after he's dumped by his girlfriend in perhaps the goofiest, most surreal of all the 1980s teen comedies. There's even a sequence with claymation hamburgers rocking out to Van Halen's “Everybody Wants Some.”

“Better Off Dead,” like “The Sure Thing,” isn't original in its plotting. It is the weirdness that permeates throughout the film that makes it special. The same quirky sensibility couldn't quite be replicated when Cusack and Holland worked together again for 1986's “One Crazy Summer.”

This time Cusack played an aspiring cartoonist who is trying to find love in Nantucket. The best thing about “One Crazy Summer” is that there are several animated sequences that are very funny. In a few scenes, much to Cusack's frustration, his cartoons begin talking back to him and they aren't particularly kind. The film is also noteworthy for being one of Demi Moore's first big roles.

By the end of the decade, Cusack was the go-to guy for this kind of teen/20-something romance. He would finish out the 1980s with the best of the bunch, “Say Anything,” a film about a nice, but average guy who against the odds wins the heart of the valedictorian. It is an honest, smart and funny look at love.

All of these films helped established what would become Cusack's career persona. He's almost always a good guy looking for love. He usually has a cynical, smart-alecky edge that only barely masks his sincerity.

Cusack isn't a chameleon-like actor who is different in every movie. Many people assume that those are the only truly great actors, but that isn't necessarily true. Cusack hits similar notes in all his films, but watching him find new riffs and variations is the appeal. Cusack is an actor in the same mold as a Cary Grant or Jimmy Stewart in that he has a certain act that he repeats time and time again, but that's why you go to his films.

So, I say hop into your own time machine and have yourself a Cusack marathon. It'll make the world a better place.

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