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John Cusack: A Viewer’s Guide

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You can tell a lot about someone by their favourite John Cusack movie. The music lover would go for High Fidelity; fans of the surreal would opt for Being John Malkovich – probably while pretending to be a pear – while the eternal teenager might take The Sure Thing. The incurable romantic will plump for Say Anything, and those with short attention spans would put a tick next to The Thin Red Line (well, if you fast-forward to the Cusack bits, it’s pretty brief). If your DVD player is stolen, your choice is probably Con Air. Truth is, they’re all good. As the man himself says with customary modesty, “I’ve made ten good films.” There has also been a duffer or two along the way – he’d admit that too – but there are more than enough hits to delight his army of fans. Here’s Empire’s suggestions of where to start – and where not to.

ESSENTIAL VIEWING: High Fidelity (2000)

There were little squeaks of horror when fans of Nick Hornby’s much-loved novel realised that Cusack and his co-writers would be packing up the story and shipping it to Chicago for their film adaptation. But the end result – an alt. rom-com that mixes fanboy fervour with just a hint of cynicism – more than justifies the decision. Cusack’s hometown, Chicago, is the setting for his struggling record store owner’s travails. He loves, loses and then start loving all over again, in between bouts of shit-talking with Jack Black, mixtape-making and enough music snobbery to put Simon Cowell out of business. It cleaves close to the spirit of the book, if not the locale and list-making, and leaves music lovers buzzing in its wake. It made Hornby happy too. "At times, it appears to be a film in which John Cusack reads my book," was the author’s immodest review.

ESSENTIAL VIEWING: Grosse Point Blank (1997)

Given that he was hitherto principally known as a thinker rather than a fighter, Cusack kicks surprisingly amounts of ass in this modern hitman classic as Martin Q. Blank, a hired gun heading back for the Class of ’86 reunion at his old Michigan high-school. It’s a familiar Cusack locale in an unfamiliar guise – his failure to Biro anyone to death in Say Anything is glaring – but his nonchalant termination service rivals even that Lee Marvin flick referenced in the title. The plan is to get in and out, slug back some punch, win back his old flame (Minnie Driver) and try not kill anyone. The problem? Dan Aykroyd’s no-nonsense assassin Grocer and a Basque terrorist with a sense-of-humour problem aren’t in on the joke. It’s hard to think of any other actor who could nail the requisite blend of wryness, physical presence, smarts and comic timing here. Cusack can and does. He also knows what to do with a TV, as Grocer’s head will testify.

ESSENTIAL VIEWING: Being John Malkovich (1999)

If Inception forgot to take its meds you’d get Being John Malkovich, a noodle-frying inner-space odyssey created within the architecture of Charlie Kaufman’s mind. Cusack’s character is puppeteer and underemployed schleb Craig Schwartz, but he’s the one who gets spun a merry dance in the metadventure, finding a doorway into John Malkovich’s subsconscious and a world of weirdness therein. The ponytailed Schwartz is hardly likeable – he’d be a master manipulator if he was any good at it – but Cusack is such an engaging screen presence, he’s impossible not to root for. Given the unshowy turn at the eye of the madness storm, he more than holds his own. And with characters delivering lines like “Is it weird that John Malkovich has some kind of portal?”, a 7½th floor, and (as it turns out) the actual Charlie Sheen popping up to evaluate the threesome potential of it all, that’s no mean feat.

RECOMMENDED: The Grifters (1990)

Stephen Frear’s noir was a key film for Cusack: a gateway from gifted Brat Packer to bona fide star with a taste for eclectic material. Frears, his producer Martin Scorsese and writer Donald Westlake shaped a high-gloss criminal world from the pages of Jim Thompson’s novel and set Cusack’s bits-and-pieces conman Roy Dillon to work scamming banknotes and generally duping the gullible. There are several likely reasons he was drawn to the role right there – not to mention the free shades – but the chance to spar with Anjelica Huston and Annette Bening must have registered highly. Both are on voracious form as apex predators in high heels and lipstick, while Cusack gives us an antihero from the slow-and-steady school. Together they’re the most explosive mix this side of Kiss Me Deadly’s luggage department.

RECOMMENDED: Bullets Over Broadway (1994)

This riotous Woody Allen period piece plunges Cusack headfirst into the murky waters of creative compromise – a topic close to his, and his director’s, heart – and zero-tolerance Italian-American men with guns. It’s set in the height of Prohibition, where Cusack’s struggling playwright needs the patronage of gangster Cheech (Chazz Palminteri) to get his opus onto the stage. The kicker is that his moll, Jennifer Tilly, has to appear in the play – and her thimbleful of talent wouldn’t get her through a playschool nativity play. Cusack displays a Jack Benny-like flair for playing the screwball straight guy as Dianne Wiest’s theatrical diva (“No, no, don't speak!”) eats up the screen. Wiest won an Oscar, but Cusack wins a place in our hearts for keeping a shred of dignity while screaming “I’M A WHORE!” at the top of his voice.

FOR THE FAN: Say Anything (1989)

John Cusack may not look back on his ‘80s output with much nostalgia, but, boy, do the rest of us love it. 1985’s The Sure Thing is good, but this is better. This dated-yet-somehow-timeless Cameron Crowe collaboration sees his schlebby high-schooler Lloyd Dobler trying to woo brainiac Diane Court (Ione Skye) before she buggers off and wins a Nobel for curing death or something. She’s a cut-glass beauty with a demanding dad and high hopes for the future – as Lloyd’s pals put it, “A brain trapped in the body of a game-show host” – while he’s got crumpled charm and a ghetto blaster. Can he win her heart? Course he can. He’s John ruddy Cusack. Man, woman, child, cybernetic organism… if you can watch this man blasting Peter Gabriel at his true love’s window without welling up inside, you’re a stony soul. It’s a cinematic moment in time that can’t ever be reproduced – even with a huge iPod.

ONE TO AVOID: 2012 (2010)

Comedian Dara O'Briain has an inspired riff on Roland Emmerich’s eyeball-popping apocalypsathon. “The film is basically John Cusack running away from lava for two hours,” he explains. “He gets into a car, the lava sped up. He’s in the plane, it gets faster again. Midway through the film, you’re think, ‘Hold on John! Stand still and see if the lava just stops. Call its bluff!’” We really can’t improve on that, although it’s worth pointing out that amid all the Mayan doomsaying, mutating neutrinos and general destruction of the entire planet, Cusack still just about retains our respect. After all, he manages to keep his tie on throughout. This one probably doesn’t have pride of place on the Cusack DVD shelf, but it’s not every actor who can claim to have spent an entire movie being chased by molten rock.