Career Prospectus: John Cusack
For previous installments of Sarah’s Career Prospectus series, please click here.
I just saw The Spectacular Now yesterday and loved it. Miles Teller reminds me of a young John Cusack in the best of ways. Which got me thinking. What happened with that career? Just bad choices? I've heard from a reliable source that he's a total douche and while I don't want to believe it, I wouldn't be surprised. So is his lame ass career his own fault for his douchery? Yet he will be in The Butler this fall. Thoughts?
And there is (was?) John Cusack: no Oscar, ever, but awfully colored hair. What's going on with the guy?
Good timing on these requests—they came within days of each other right at the same time that Dean mentioned John Cusack having a non-embarrassing role for once, as Brian Williams in the Beach Boys movie. So let’s do it. Let’s see what exactly is going on with Lloyd Dobler.
First, his career isn’t in that bad of shape. Cusack works—A LOT—and he’s got a good track record as a writer, plus he’s not a bad producer. He has eight titles slated this year, so even if only half of them come out, he’s still way above the average output for actors. And it isn’t all sh*t, either. The paycheck movies are easy to spot (2012, The Raven, Must Love Dogs) but he’s also done the very fine Grace is Gone, and now The Butler, and the uneven but interesting War, Inc., with bonus 1408 and Hot Tub Time Machine. Neither are ground-breaking but they’re both solid. The main issue with Cusack’s career—if you want to call it an issue, and I’m not sure that I do—is lack of consistency.
Cusack is all over the map. He’s in action movies, he’s in period dramas, he’s in horror movies, comedies, rom-coms, arty dramatic fare—and he’s good at all of it. You buy him in any circumstance, and while he’s built to be a leading man, he can slot into a supporting role just as easily. That kind of range is enviable, but when the artist who possesses it lacks focus, it can become cacophonous. Cusack has made some Hall of Fame excellent movies: Say Anything, Better Off Dead, The Grifters, Bullets Over Broadway, High Fidelity, Being John Malkovich, Grosse Pointe Blank. But he’s also dropped his fair share of bombs: 2012, Must Love Dogs, The Contract, the rage-inducing Serendipity. (True story: I threw a Coke can at a tiny TV on an airplane because of Serendipity. Coincidentally, I can no longer fly on Delta Airlines.)
Some of it is the law of averages—the longer an actor works, the more bombs he’ll accumulate (they all sh*t the bed from time to time), and Cusack’s been working a long time. But a lot of it is Cusack’s haphazard approach to choosing work. Sometimes you can spot a pattern, like the rom-coms that followed High Fidelity, but usually it’s just Cusack jumping from project to project with no rhyme or reason. He’s been around long enough, and done enough good work, that he can call his own shots, but where, say, Brad Pitt has used his similar influence to consolidate his position as the world’s most improbable Everyman, Cusack is deliberately avoiding labels. The genre-jumping is in service of not becoming That Guy that always plays a hero/is in all the comedies/et cetera. Which is why I’m not sure it’s an actual problem.
Cusack has always had a lot of potential, and occasionally he exerts himself to remind us of that, but the story of his career is one of…not wasted opportunity, but intentionally not delivering on the early promise. Maybe he hasn’t lived up to fan expectations, but he also hasn’t descended into self-parodying dreck like Nicolas Cage or been shunted into grasping, nostalgic efforts to recapture what made him in the first place, like Bruce Willis. He’s kept his resume diverse and you never quite know what he’s going to do next, which is interesting to audiences. I feel like he’s having the kind of career Johnny Depp would have had if he hadn’t gone full-Disney, and that his natural successor is James Franco, someone else who seems determined to not live up to expectations.
There isn’t a “fix” for Cusack’s career because he’s fully capable of having more—if nothing else, he could simply write another project for himself, like High Fidelity or Grosse Pointe Blank—he just doesn’t seem to want it. The burden is on his audience to accept that maybe only one in five movies is going to be interesting to us, while the rest of the time he’s working to please himself. We wanted Lloyd Dobler to take over the world. But John Cusack just wanted to sit in his corner and play.
PS: I’ve encountered him several times and while I wouldn’t call him douchey, he’s definitely not interested in making friends.
Attached - Cusack at the wrap party for his Beach Boys film with Paul Dano.