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Grosse Pointe Blank Aims High and Shoots Straight, If Not Always on Target

This film represents the second of three films featuring John Cusack (of all people) that top my Netflix queue, just in case you were keeping track.

Wuddup, filmasters? Wow, it's been ages since I've sat down to write a film review and even more ages since I've seen the movie I'm about to review. Heck, it's been ages since I've seen a movie, period! How about those Oscars, eh? Predictable as always, n'est-ce pas?

Anyways, I've been spending the last few months deeply immersed in my local theatrical community doing not one, but two shows, so if I had anything that looked like spare time, I devoted it to sleeping, eating, maybe some tidying, and to the less time-involving television shows that I have been following this season. My roles in those productions have run their course, though, and I am feeling a serious celluloid itch (not cellulose, celluLOID). I've had a Netflix disc too long, and a few Oscar movies to review (that I actually watched before the Oscars) to discuss. Before seeing those, though, I actually watched my last Netflix entry, Grosse Pointe Blank, a film I put on the queue mostly because it was filmed in a city in my home state of Michigan and, in fact, in the title city called Grosse Pointe, a hoity-toity suburb of Detroit. I didn't know much about the movie--if I had any anecdotal knowledge of the film, I acquired it years ago, and it has long since been shoved to the back of my ever-busy brain--but vaguely recalled favorable responses to it. Plus, it featured late-90s John Cusack, and late-90s John Cusack was firing on all cylinders, in my humble opinion.

In Grosse Pointe Blank, Cusack plays Martin Q. Blank, a professional hitman who has grown listless and disillusioned by his choice of careers, particularly since rival Grocer (Dan Aykroyd) is looking to unionize the hitman industry for a tidy financial contribution. Following a botched contract spelling possibly fatal consequences for Martin, and on the advice of his therapist (Alan Arkin)--who fears Martin and rejects him as a patient, even as Martin insists upon seeking his advice--and of his secretary (Joan Cusack), he decides to attend his high school reunion in Grosse Pointe, Michigan, which is helped along by the booking of another contract in the Detroit area. Martin sees this return home as a partial excuse to look up his former flame and first love Debi (Minnie Driver), whom he left on prom night when he went to go enlist in the Army and who is now a local DJ specializing in 80s underground music. Martin's disillusionment and depression grows at the sight of his mother, deep in the throes of dementia; the sight of his childhood home, now a convenience store; and through the reconnection with friends like Paul (Jeremy Piven), who sold Martin's childhood home, though he sees hope of some kind of redemption with Debi. As Martin's past and present collide, he is being stalked by Grocer, a rival hitman, and government agents (played by Hank Azaria and K. Todd Freeman), who were tipped off by Grocer. The entire homecoming produces one existential crisis after another for the quirky and unusual Martin in his attempt to reconcile his (lack of) identity with the life-related milestones that brought him to this nostalgic affair.

One of the best parts of Grosse Pointe Blank is that its premise is so quirky and so original, as well as so massively appealing in its cheekiness, the film is instantly engaging. In an intelligently twisty dark-comedy backdrop, having a professional hit-man visit his high school reunion, with a bunch of cookie-cutter, "normal" types that used to be his friends and classmates, is an ingeniously creative stroke yielding a treasure trove of comedic gold. The screenwriting team, including story originator Tom Jankiewicz, infused quick-witted, snappy dialog with an outlandish and yet oddly grounded framework of homeboy hit-man. For those who crave a subversive undercurrent of the demented or absurd, as I sometimes do, this film will ultimately satisfy that impulse, since it sublimely and subtly posits an imaginative question: how might professional assassins arrive at their chosen profession and, most importantly, what prompts them to stay in it?

This question isn't expressed outright in any element of the story or segment of screenplay but is definitely present, bringing an unsuspected depth to the proceedings. In point of fact, though, Martin's journey home is as mundane as anyone else's, even if his life outside of Grosse Pointe is anything but. It helps that Cusack offers his best (and usual) affability to this character, making him the likable, everyman teddy bear of all assassins. His chemistry with Driver is undeniably winning too, and though the film treads dangerously close to romantic comedy/screwball formula restrictions, the film's darkly comic premise and wry, tongue-in-cheek edge render the film's romantic tendencies more refreshing than most films that adhere strictly to genre labels and conventions.

Also, characterizing Driver's Debi as a DJ is a smooth move on the part of the story artists and filmmakers. After all, the film's incredibly hip and timeless soundtrack, mining modest hits from the decade of excess, comes already assembled owing to Debi's chosen profession and further helps to marry the surreality of Martin's external world with the internal microcosm of his quaintly suburban home town.

Grosse Pointe Blank contains a quiet potential for greatness and would achieve that elusive marker if not for the fact that the film runs over a few speed bumps that serve to derail its impressive aims. Despite the bevy of pitch-perfect comedic performances from almost the entire ensemble, Dan Aykroyd, despite his resume, seemed a bit miscast as B-villain Grocer. Whether the character was written in this manner or performed to be a stiff, bumbling caricature that lacked any real menace or sense of comedic timing, Aykroyd's take did not match the smooth, silky, slickness of Martin's assassin world or the hometown angst of his high school reunion. It seems unlikely that Grocer would be the symbol of this disjointedness when Martin's life and introspection of his past are naturally misaligned. Aykroyd's presence was, in the end, kind of annoying.

Also, while the movie was mostly refreshing and steered clear of most romantic comedy standards, the trite, abrupt ending prevented the film from achieving its almost-greatness and constituted its one instance of sticking to the same-old. Without spoiling it, the ending became something of a predictable, sudden affair, containing a nugget of uplifting positivity but abandoning the witty edge of everything that preceded it. The ending is what paves the way for comparisons to romantic comedies when the film itself is striving to be so much more.

In the end, though, Grosse Pointe Blank is a decently-directed, razor-sharp skewering of several genres that never gets bogged down by its minor flaws or any meaty ties to tried and tired comedic conventions. In many ways, it reminds me of American Beauty or similar fare with a decidedly less serious and, therefore, funnier edge. I enjoyed it, at any rate, and knew instantly that it would be awarded an 8 on the patented, trademarked ratings scale (mine, that is) for being very good but having minor flaws. As for test of purchase, I'm not sure of its pass/fail status. I think that I would be inclined to watch it again before making that decision. Grosse Pointe Blank is recommendable for anyone who might like satirical, absurd, and slightly wicked humor, John Cusack (it's a great vehicle for him), the Grosse Pointes of Michigan, or flashbacks to the eighties. It may not always hit its mark, but Grosse Pointe Blank is, at its base, a straight-shooting slice of entertainment.

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