Film and TV

It's a Hit, Man

There are way too many movies about hit men, but that shouldn't dissuade you from seeing Grosse Pointe Blank. It's not quite like any other movie--let alone one about a hit man. That may be because it's a hit-man movie crossed with a high-school-reunion comedy, and the two genres mesh surprisingly well: It's not a great leap to imagine who in your high school might have turned into one of those trigger-fingered "self-employed" types.

Martin Q. Blank (John Cusack) portrays the hit man as businessman. He keeps regular office hours, has a secretary (Joan Cusack) and goes where the work takes him--he once assassinated the president of Paraguay with a fork. We watch Martin zap a few targets in the early sections of the film. Then, to make amends for a botched job, he retreats to his fabulously wealthy hometown of Grosse Pointe, Michigan, for double duty: He's there to hit a federal witness and attend his ten-year high-school reunion.

He's also there to hook up with his high-school flame, Debi (the radiant Minnie Driver), about whom he has been obsessing ever since he stood her up for the senior prom and then disappeared for a decade. Actually, he stood up all of Grosse Pointe: A shady high-school demi-legend, Martin was poised for big things. Now he's back--a superannuated BMOC.

Cusack, who co-wrote the film with Tom Jankiewicz, D.V. DeVincentis and Steve Pink, is very good with Blank's blankness. (DeVincentis and Pink, with actors Jeremy Piven and Greg Sporleder, studied acting alongside Cusack in Chicago after college and are co-founders with Cusack of the experimental Chicago-based theater company New Crimes.) Cusack's otherwise deliberately flat line readings have surprising little blips of propulsion, as if he were about to break into a stammer or a scat song. He can do the furtive thing better than just about anybody; he brings out the paranoiac comedy in the hit man's nowhere-man swagger. When Martin walks down the street in Grosse Pointe, he's attuned to every flicker of disquiet around him; he can spot a tail out of the corner of his eye at a hundred paces. Martin is like a walking radar station--he's always picking up vibes of interference.

Under the circumstances, it's kind of sweet that Debi still rankles him. It's easy to see why--she's a knockout and turns out to be even more of a zigzag than he. They pick up the torch where he last dropped it. Regressing to a love-puppy adolescence, they walk into the reunion together and become once again the cutest couple.

Grosse Pointe Blank, which was directed by George Armitage, plays out at its funniest like a comic fantasy of what it would be like to go back to high school and be tougher and scarier than anybody else. Except that Martin doesn't flaunt his toughness; he's like some sensei who doesn't have to prove anything and just wants to have an okay time. He offhandedly tells some of his classmates he's a hit man, but it's only because he's too deadpan to think up anything else--and no one really believes him, anyway.

The filmmakers resist the temptation to turn Martin into a case history. He's a hit man because, as Debi's father points out, it's a "growth industry." And he wants out of the industry only because he's well-off and tired of the racket. He resists an invitation from a rival hit man known as Grocer (Dan Aykroyd) to form a hit-man's union, complete with dues and benefits. If Martin is troubled, it's not because of his "job." It's because of Debi.

She is formidable in his eyes because she can rattle him the way no counter-assassin can. In Grosse Pointe, Martin plays cat-and-mouse with a Basque hit man, but it's no big deal for him. Debi is a big deal. He even prepped for their reunion: Before leaving for Grosse Pointe, he checked in with his psychiatrist, Dr. Oatman (Alan Arkin), for some guidance. Oatman is terrified of his patient. He advises Martin to go to the reunion and "don't kill anybody for a few days." (The notion of a hit man with his psychiatrist is a comic inspiration worthy of Woody Allen at his wiggiest.)

Grosse Pointe is a great backdrop to the story--Martin obviously isn't some deprived kid. What angers him on returning home after ten years is that the family home, which must have been palatial, has been razed and replaced by a mini-mart. It's not the razing that appears to rile Martin; it's the mini-mart. The tackiness offends his sense of privilege. Having access to the finer things as a boy has given Martin a feeling of entitlement. He feels he's entitled to Debi, but he's too wary to force things and scare her off.

She hangs him up for a while, even though she's starstruck. When he first reunites with her while she's doing her radio talk show, she brings him into the show's call-in portion and allows listeners to grill him about his prom-night disappearing act. He lets himself be put through the ringer for her; it's his penance. It's also fair play, and Martin is nothing if not fair. What bothers him about his work is that his victims keep confusing him with his job. "Why does everybody think it's personal?" he asks after one particularly messy job. He wants to be thought of as a professional killer and a good guy.

The high-school reunion is supposed to be a kind of validation for Martin, but it turns out all wrong. He may look trim in his usual jet-black duds, but most of his classmates are frazzled and bleary. Armitage captures the depresso raucousness of a class reunion better than anyone since Jonathan Demme in Something Wild.

Martin's secretary has already warned him what it would be like. Referring to her own tenth reunion, she recalls that it was "just as if everyone had swelled"--and that's precisely the way everybody looks in Grosse Pointe. Martin is so much slicker and better-formed than his old classmates and neighbors, it's as if he were standing up for the bad life. Murdering people for a living has been good for his looks.

But of course Martin feels separated from his looks. That's one reason he's back in Grosse Pointe: He's having an identity crisis, and he wants to feel good about who he was. (One of his most pleasant moments comes when he checks out his old high school locker and finds a ten-year-old joint stowed away in the corner.)

But the filmmakers don't push this crisis stuff much, and it's just as well. When we see Martin checking up on his addled mother (Barbara Harris) in a nursing home or pouring a bottle of booze on his father's grave, we're supposed to feel sorry for him and think that maybe his parents made him what he is. It's all too conventional a crock for such a weird movie. What's funny--and unsettling--about Martin is his unknowableness: The more you try to explain him away, the less interesting he becomes.

There's a funny moment in Grosse Pointe Blank when a convenience-store clerk is so busy playing a shoot-'em-up video game that he fails to notice the real-life shootout going on around him. That sequence is typical of the entire movie because it mixes fake gore with real bullets. Everything is kept in a kind of cartoon suspension where nothing seems to be taking place quite for real. It's an extension of the exploitation-film methods Armitage used in the films he ground out for Roger Corman in the '70s, but with a spooky new tone of dissociation.

That tone was also present in Armitage's previous film Miami Blues, adapted from a Charles Willeford thriller, which was knocked for not having a point of view. What bothered people, I think, was that Armitage wasn't getting all huffy and moralistic about the amorality on the screen. He doesn't get huffy in Grosse Pointe Blank, either. He's a filmmaker bemused by his own alienation. Armitage has Martin shoot out a Pulp Fiction poster, and the moment is symbolic. Whereas Tarantino's crime thrillers are full of "attitude" and self-referential pop sloganeering, Armitage's way is more relaxed and distanced. You can't even call Grosse Pointe Blank a black comedy, because that would imply an engagement with its terrors that Armitage avoids.

The naysayers about Miami Blues were right, but they were also wrong. The same holds true for Grosse Pointe Blank: It doesn't have a point of view. That's what's exciting and original about it. It's a killing comedy for people who have learned to stop worrying and love their identity crisis.

Grosse Pointe Blank.
Screenplay by Tom Jankiewicz, D.V. DeVincentis, Steve Pink, John Cusack. Directed by George Armitage. Starring John Cusack, Minnie Driver, Alan Arkin, Dan Aykroyd and Hank Azaria.

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Peter Rainer