GROSSE POINTE BLANK *** 1/2
The title "Grosse Pointe Blank" is a clever passepartout game of movie references. Grosse Pointe is a luxurious suburb of Detroit; the protagonist is a professional killer; he is played by polite, quiet and "civilized" John Cusack (a kid of anti-Lee Marvin); his nom-de-film is Martin Q. Blank, "blank" as in bullet and as in "faceless and unseen hitman. " The full name echoes John Q. Public.
I was predisposed to enjoy that film, as a fan of the Evanston, Illinois siblings John and Joan Cusack, great performers with opposite styles, his calm and thoughtful, hers ebullient and funny.
In my University of Michigan days, Grosse Pointe impressed me with its wealthy lifestyle, mansions of automobile executives, yards full of luxurious cars. It remained in my memory as a mythical place, like a creation by F. Scott Fitzgerald. What an uncanny suprise it was when, in the course of the movie, a cafe waitress recites a menu which contains a "West Egg" omelet, a name straight from "The Great Gatsby"!
Big and small pleasures abound in the picture. Its weird action and dialogue take off immediately with an outrageous sequence of cartoon-like shootingss that itself is a takeoff of movies about killers. The parody is so smartly handled that it does not play for broad laughs nor in any way feel like deja vu.
This is a genuinely maverick film. Among its many early inventions is the meeting of rival killers Martin and Grocer (Aykroyd), arranged via their cellular phones. Their cars stop next to each other, but the cellular conversation continues at a distance of five feet. As the two men embrace they keep one hand on their guns. Grocer's has the off-the-wall plan to form a hitmen's union. When Martin refuses, Grocer decides to eliminate him.
Next comes the parody of advanced technology and movies where all the electronics and gizmos work like magic. But a new hit fizzles and now Martin also has after him the hitman of a dissatisfied client.
Parodying private-eye movies, delicious Joan Cusack plays Martin's goofy, kinetic yet super-capable secretary and Girl Friday. When she dresses in a jacket full of metal buttons, Martin addresses her as Sergeant Pepper. She practically forces reluctant Martin to attend a tenth high-school class reunion in Grosse Pointe.
The tempo is fast yet all the characters get a full treatment that, with just canny, economical sketches, gives them essence, existence and novelty. Martin visits his shrink Dr. Oatman (Alan Arkin). This sequence, and subsequent phone calls, are models of efficacious playing and probably Arkin's finest moment since his Captain Yossarian in that absurdist classic "Catch-22. "
The psychiatrist has been told by his patient about his real profession. Arkin is nervous, worried and subdued. Martin tells him he's going to Detroit. The doctor sends him off with "Don't kill anybody for a few days. See how it feels. " Martin: "I'll give it a shot. " The doctor: " No, don't do that. Don't do ANYTHING. "
By now we know that Martin is undergoing a psychological crisis and questioning his "raison d'etre. " And that he will kill two birds with one stone (not Oliver) by going to Detroit for a hit, and to Grosse Pointe for the school reunion.
Why M. Q. Blank disappeared from circulation ten years ago, and why he will attend the affair, are not spelled out. True to its wild and woolly nature, the movie always either goes squarely for the absurd or else flirts with it. We learn, however, that he is obsessed with Debi (Minnie Driver), and that she was his sweetheart whom he inexplicably stood up at the senior prom, leaving her stranded in her $700 dress.
The most satisfying side of this movie is that absolutely everything happens in odd, different and amusing ways down to the killings or to Martin being stalked by enemies: weird Government men acting illegally, Mr. Grocer, plus another terminator.
Inventiveness is a principle but not a formula. It extends to the meeting of Martin and Debi. She is the phone-in disc-jockey (apparently the whole staff) of the alternative Radio Free Grosse Pointe (cf. Radio Free Europe). For the class reunion she promises "an all-80s, all-vinyl weekend. "
There are more setups, encounters and absurdisms in scene after scene. Seldom underlined, they operate through strange little, eccentric, off-kilter slants. Each situation is different from its equivalent in other films. Like Martin in a mini-mart grandiosely called Ultimart, where he befuddles the sole, young employee. (It turns out that this was where Martin's house once stood). Like the store shootout where concealed weapons exceed the firing capacity of military machine-guns. Parody here parodies other parodies--something that is bound to fail, yet does not.
Many of Martin's meetings are low-key but keep the audience in stitches. He encounters an old classmate who sells real-estate and has sold his principles to the devil Money. He gives this man's clients an out-of-nowhere sales pitch. He runs into a former teacher. The school bell rings. "I must go now" says she, "They're playing my song. " His visit to his dotty Mom in a retirement home is memorable in its do-almost-nothing simplicity. At the class reunion, the former schoolmates have short, funny and unforced lines. Cusack's timing and cool are letter- perfect.
The instant resumption of the affair with Debi is a charmer helped by her broadcasting her feelings to all listeners, taking the initiative, sitting an embarrassed Martin next to live microphones. This follows the familiar structure of movies or TV episodes where two threads are used, in this case the killer and the romance. But it is done with such novelty and delightfully un-telegraphed moments that they take the edge off the familiar, such as the traumatisms of school reunions or the bloody killings -- the latter always done with comic-book violence akin to the surrealism of Jean-Luc Godard.
Between vigorous actions "GPB" takes potshots, throws darts at or suavely mocks an array of people, values and situations, without any traces of rancor. The tangled web of the plot has no major, logical guiding lines for the audience, yet it piles smoothly joke upon witty line upon gag.
True, past the brilliantly clever first part, it is impossible to keep up the level of interest, pace and inventions. Inevitably, there comes the time of "where do we go from here?" I was conscious of this, but even so, it is no fatal illness. There's also a small problem with the dialogue. Intelligently written, fast and often overlapping in cinema-verite style, it becomes sometimes hard to catch -- unlike the clear sound of the Debi-Martin wet kissess.
In the end-credits, a song keeps the faith with the movie's spirit. It is "Matador," sung with Latin brio by, appropriately, Los Fabulosos Cadillacs.
John Cusack wrote the script with several Evanston buddies and cast at least one old pal in the film. It is said that a camel is a horse made by a committee, yet this movie breaks the rule and comes up with a Pegasus.