Making a Killing

Grosse Pointe Blank

When movies go for the “retro” feel, that throwback vibe to make viewers think of their own bygone era, it’s usually to cater to the older set, the adults hitting middle age, thinking about how high school was the best time of their lives. “It was a simpler time, a better time,” they think, even though every decade has its own issues. That’s why you get movies like Back to the Future which was made in 1985 and is set in 1955 for most of its runtime. Or you have Captain Marvel, made in 2019 and set in 1995. Nostalgia is pure brain candy for the viewers, a potent blend that gets people into the theater.

Rarer is nostalgia for a youth misspent across a shorter time span. When you’re an adult now but you haven’t hit middle age you don’t often think as hard about what could have been, where you were, what you wanted to do that you didn’t. And yet, it can still strike. The one that got away, the choice you could have made differently, all things that could have been that might have altered your path forward. Ten years seems like a lot of time when you’re still finding your way. That’s what Grosse Pointe Blank feels like, a nostalgia trip for someone still on the ride.

It helps that the lead actor, John Cusack, came up in the Bat Pack era of film. An iconic star of the 1980s, from films like Better Off Dead, One Crazy Summer, and Say Anything, there was cultural cachet in putting Cusack in a film about looking back at your high school days and wondering, “what if?” With a soundtrack of 1980s pop, new wave, and synth hits, the film plays hard on the nostalgia vibes (never mind the fact that it now works as its own 1990s nostalgia trip for anyone watching the movie today). And, yes, it works, both as a film on its own merits and as an obvious nostalgia play. Sometimes films can be both things.

Martin Q. Blank (John Cusack) is an assassin. A hired gun, working solo, Blank kills people for money. As he puts in, “if he shows up on your doorstep, odds are you did something to be there.” After two back-to-back botched jobs (one where he saved a target only for a second, unexpected gunman to show up and kill them anyway, and a second that was supposed to be a peaceful, death in their sleep that turned violent), Blank has to take a backup job to make it right with his client.

As it turns out, the job puts him back in Grosse Pointe, Michigan, just in time for his ten year high school reunion. Technically Blank never finished high school, having fled on prom night to join the army and find himself, much to the chagrin of his ex-girlfriend, Debi (Minnie Driver), who was left waiting in her prom dress with no explanation. With the encouragement of his administrative assistant, Marcella (Joan Cusack), and his therapist, Dr. Oatman (Alan Arkin), Blank goes back to Grosse Point to reconnect with Debi, to go to the reunion, and maybe just find some closure on his old life. Oh, and also to kill someone.

Cusack had, through Grosse Pointe Blank and beyond, made a name for himself playing neurotic, overthinking characters. He wasn’t a traditional leading man, so he found a way to make it as a character actor in leading roles. You could see it from his early roles playing a side character in Class and Sixteen Candles before producers figured out just what to do with him. His speciality is this kind of character, so it’s no surprise that Blank, in this movie, is a neurotic assassin struggling to figure out who he wants to be and what he wants to do with his life. He’s basically Lloyd Dobbler from Say Anything with a gun.

Working with Cusack’s character is the fact that the film doesn’t try to really ground itself in reality. While the world of Grosse Pointe is clearly supposed to be our world, no one in the film reacts like you’d think a sane person would, most of the time. Every time Blank reintroduces himself to someone, like Debi or his best friend Paul (Jeremy Piven) or Debi’s father (Mitchell Ryan), they ask what he does and he replies, “professional killer.” Each and every time the characters think he’s joking despite, well, him dressing and acting like a hired gunman. It really shouldn’t come as a shock.

The other assassins in the film are also colorful, weird characters. Dan Aykroyd plays Grocer, a contemporary of Blank who wants to create an organization where they could also associate and schedule around each other or, as Blank puts it, a “union”. Aykroyd plays Grocer with his usual weird charm and while it’s a performance that couldn’t work everywhere, it does work solidly in the context here. Hank Azaria and K. Todd Freeman play two sarcastic NSA agents that seem more interested in commenting on the action than engaging with it. Even the one legitimate threat in the film, Benny Urquidez as Felix La Poubelle, is also played for creepy laughs. The movie knows the world it has built, and it finds ways to play well within it.

The film is legitimately funny in a number of ways. It’s not just the strange character populating this otherwise “real” world. It’s not just the snappy writing and solid one liners. It’s the mood, the way the film blends the characters and the setting and the dialogue together to create a satire that both feels like more than reality but could also, you think, exist for real in the right circumstances. The film is able to craft a real story about real characters and then make it all work as a laugh out loud experience. The comedy is solid because it knows that it has to come from a real place to deliver the outlandish laughs.

If there’s any part that I think doesn’t work as well it’s the climax. Naturally Blank has to find a way to stop the other assassins and get the girl, effectively finding the change in path for his life that he desperately needs. The film accomplishes this in a big, action set piece and it’s fine. It’s not great, it’s not directed with aplomb. It gets the job done so that all the bad guys are gone and the good guys can find some kind of happy ending. A more biting movie (spoilers) would punish Blank or make him lose the girl or have him realize he’s not cut out to be “normal”, but Grosse Pointe Blank goes for the safer, easier ending. It’s fine, but it does feel like a bit of a cop out.

Grosse Pointe Blank is a fantastic, hilarious movie for nine-tenths of its runtime. If it drops the ball at all it’s just in the last bit of the last act, and even then at least it has the grace to get out quick afterwards. It’s a funny movie I’ve watched a number of times and it’s always solidly enjoyable. Maybe a slightly more nuanced ending would have carried the film even more, but that doesn’t take away all the things the film gets right.