Grosse Pointe Blank

 

This is REKT, the column where each month one Cinepunx staffer recommends films to the rest of the fam. We may be stoked, or we may be wrecked. This month, it’s Justin Harlan’s turn to do the damage. Here are Trey Lawson‘s thoughts on Grosse Point Blank.

 

I’m frankly shocked that I’ve gone this long in life without ever watching Grosse Pointe Blank. I was probably a bit young when it first hit theaters, but it’s the kind of quirky action comedy that in high school I would have rented repeatedly. Weirdly, I’d seen exactly one scene before – when John Cusack briefly speaks to Minnie Driver’s father before the reunion. In it, a soliloquy from Hamlet is flippantly invoked, and I have occasionally used it when teaching adaptations/interpretations of that speech. But for some reason I had it in my head that this film was a much “harder” action/drama than it actually is, which could be part of what kept me away.  Don’t ask me why I would have thought this, since a cursory glance at the cast tells you exactly what kind of movie to expect. In any case, thanks to REKT I finally got around to Grosse Pointe Blank, 21 years after its original release.

Grosse Pointe Blank would not exist if not for Quentin Tarantino. Pulp Fiction was released just a few years before, and that film’s influence is present in virtually every scene of Grosse Pointe Blank. From the black suits and sunglasses worn by Martin Blank (John Cusack) – not to mention his increasing sense of disillusionment – to the very hip soundtrack, this is clearly an early example of what we might now call the “Tarantino-esque” aesthetic. To that end, while the film could mostly be seen as “style over substance,” that style is admittedly pretty cool. Plus more often than not the film’s tongue is planted firmly in cheek, and its frequent touches of comedy lend a sense of self-awareness to what otherwise might be dismissed as irredeemably shallow.

I frankly didn’t much care for the character of Martin Blank, and I’m not entirely sure if I’m supposed to. Cusack plays him as unstable, often self-centered, and borderline(?) sociopathic. The one thing that seems to anchor him to humanity is the possibility of rekindling a relationship with Debi (Minnie Driver), the high school sweetheart he abandoned on prom night ten years earlier – and that’s really just an unfair situation for Debi to be in. He also has a pretty unhealthy relationship with his therapist (Alan Arkin), who clearly does not want to have any part in Blank’s life or problems. The one person (besides Debi) that Blank gets along with is his assistant Marcella (Joan Cusack), and they mostly communicate via his high tech (for the mid-90s) cell phone. In any case, depending on who Blank is currently interacting with, he oscillates between manic and depressive without quite ever being sympathetic.

The rest of the cast around Cusack’s Martin Blank are really what make Grosse Pointe Blank work. They elevate the film to a heightened, surreal space high-priced hitmen can intersect with quaint small-town life. Joan Cusack’s Marcella steals every scene she’s in, and I wish she had more to do. Similarly, Dan Aykroyd is delightfully and menacingly quirky as Grocer, a rival hitman looking to unionize. He infuses the film with a sense of dark, anarchic humor and plays his character as so unhinged as to make Blank seem almost normal by comparison. That rivalry and chemistry between Aykroyd and John Cusack is probably my favorite part of the film, and certainly results in some of the most memorable exchanges. On the flipside, Minnie Driver’s Debi is the character who most grounds the film, and she has a measure of charm and charisma that makes for some interesting verbal sparring with Blank. In addition, her job as a local disc jockey ties in nicely with the film’s soundtrack, and her situation both before and after reuniting with Blank is by far the most relatable and sympathetic in the film. Throughout most of the film I found myself far more concerned for her well-being than Martin’s.

One of the things that really stands out to me watching Grosse Pointe Blank now, some 14 years after my own high school graduation, is that sense of what it’s like to go home to a small town after being away for a long time. In particular, it turns a fairly critical (if also satirical) eye toward the people who never left. Some are trapped, some hanging on to old grudges and past glories, and others relishing their status as big fish in a very small pond. There is a sadness to this, even when it is played for laughs; this may not be entirely fair, and is perhaps partly due to the film being focalized through Martin. Even the reunion itself is something of a pitiful affair. But it helps us as viewers to recognize Debi’s dissatisfaction and growing desire to escape. This aspect of the film, which operates mostly through secondary and tertiary characters, hit pretty close to home and made the town feel more real than I probably would have thought when I was younger.

Grosse Pointe Blank is a fun time capsule of how Hollywood tried to respond and capitalize on the popularity of Tarantino’s early crime films. To that end, it avoids the major problems of other “Tarantino-esque” films by not forgetting to have fun. Too often the emphasis during this era was on Tarantino’s use of violence, and the result was a bunch of humorless copycats that tried to get by with just excessive profanity and bloodletting. Instead, Grosse Pointe Blank never pushes anything too far, and it recognizes the need to juxtapose that violence with humor. Its self-awareness at times plays almost like a semi-spoof of 90s Tarantino (in fact, there’s a Pulp Fiction standee in the background of the convenience store shootout in the middle of the film).

There really isn’t much to the plot, and the ending is surprisingly abrupt, but the cast is so good and the pacing so fluid that I didn’t really notice until it was over. I wish some of the side characters had more to do (Joan Cusack for sure, and also Hank Azaria & K. Todd Freeman are utterly wasted as a couple of NSA stooges). But even the under-utilized actors make the most of their scenes and add to the film’s eccentric sense of humor. Plus, and I can’t stress this enough, the ’80s/’90s soundtrack is awesome. Is it Great Cinema? Who cares. It’s funny, it’s got solid action, and it has style to spare. Plus its treatment of life after high school in a small town is a thing I really didn’t expect to affect me the way it did. I’m glad I watched this one, even if the main character is kind of a selfish jerk most of the time.

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Trey Lawson

Trey Lawson is a critic, academic, and sometimes actor who writes on topics ranging from Early Modern English Literature to genre film and pop culture. He has of late been trapped in a crypt, where he reads comics and records Tomb of Ideas: A Marvel Horror Podcast with his friend and co-host James Hickson. He's pretty sure he wears a necktie too often to be properly considered punk, but would like to think he's at least punk-adjacent.
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