Grosse Pointe Blank Pumped the Gen X Rom-Com Full of Lead
The quirky black comedy about coming home to the suburbs turns 25Movies Features John Cusack
The reason we get shoved into generational cohorts is that it makes us easier to label (and, really, to market consumer goods to). There is some useful insight to be gleaned about a person if you stand them up next to other people who swooned over the Beatles, or who remember the moon landing, or who, like me, put in their Selective Service System info in December of 2001. But it says a great deal less about us than a lot of people think. It’s not like you or I are the same as everybody else our own age.
That said, Grosse Pointe Blank, which manages the feat of being both a black comedy that is pitch black and a romantic comedy that is deeply romantic, is also one of the most Generation X movies ever. It elucidates the same kind of ennui that Clerks tackled, but for those one (vanishing) rung further up the socioeconomic ladder, or perhaps another five or so years further on in an uneventful life. It’s the single movie by screenwriter Tom Jankiewicz, who died unexpectedly in 2013 at just 49, and it has the peculiar and singular feel of one guy’s fun idea.
At 25, it mostly strikes me as being strangely relatable despite being so rooted in a particular time, place and (yeah) generation.
Martin: That’s a nice ride. Nobody buys American anymore, huh?
It also should be mentioned that the movie is a Cusack Siblings Special, the very best kind of upper-Midwest ’90s flick. John Cusack is Martin Blank, a (presumably) 28-year-old contract killer who clearly excels at his job and enjoys the lone wolf image it presupposes. He wears all black, buys ammo by the pallet and manages his finances on a headset while he’s in the middle of killing people. His chipper personal assistant is Marcella (Joan Cusack), who has top-notch research and acquisition skills and is also weirdly invested in Blank going to his 10-year high school reunion.
Blank would never do this, but he runs afoul of another hitman, “Grocer” (Dan Aykroyd), who kills the VIP that Blank was supposed to defend. The two play off one another like two facing mirrors that only reflect passive aggression. Grocer wants Blank to join a consortium of hitmen in order to avoid such embarrassing mishaps in the future (and, probably, to control him). Blank is a loner and won’t do it. These obligations collide when, as a result of another screw-up on his next job, Blank’s mysterious handlers order him to Detroit to kill somebody else before they testify in federal court. And the cushy Detroit suburb of Grosse Pointe just so happens to be where Blank is from. The gods, Marcella insists, just want him to go to his high school reunion.
Blank has until court convenes the Monday after to kill whoever’s dossier is inside the red envelope. Contrary to his protests, though, he doesn’t even bother to open the thing. Instead, he returns to his hometown to find desolation: His childhood home has been turned into a convenience store (it has a Doom II arcade box, which was not a real thing, but remember, this is a Gen X movie). His mother spends her days tripping balls in an old folks’ home and can barely remember him. His friends (and enemies, and the people he doesn’t even remember) from high school are working soul-deadening jobs that provide no real satisfaction. He also susses out pretty much right away that he’s being followed by a pair of inept G-men (Hank Azaria is one of them) and, on top of that, is also in the sights of other hitmen who want him dead for the most absurd of reasons.
There’s obviously nothing for it but to pour a whole bottle of whiskey out over his father’s grave and go visit the ex-girlfriend he stood up at prom—the very night he ghosted the whole town, to which he hasn’t returned in the decade since. The most unbelievable part of the script isn’t the idea that hitmen go around dual-wielding pistols in broad daylight in suburbia or, as Blank laments, that everybody thinks he’s the one with the ax to grind rather than whoever hired him, but that any red-blooded human would walk out on Debi (Minnie Driver) under any circumstances. It’s pretty clear to us, even if it isn’t to the two of them, that they can’t stay away from each other.
But of course, Blank’s life of murder-for-hire and his desire to revive his love story with Debi come into conflict, as we know they must.
Debi: You’re a psychopath!
Martin: No, no, no, a psychopath kills for no reason! I kill for money, it’s a job.
As he prepares for the fateful night at the reunion with Debi, Blank riffs on all the happy little platitudes he’s going to say through gritted teeth: He imagines the inane jobs he could say he has, he practices deflecting from the fact that he’s unmarried, childless and possesses basically none of the signifiers of a successful man. (Nobody will even believe him when he tells them he kills people for a living. “Does that come with dental?” Jeremy Piven wants to know.)
In the final explosive gun battle—playing out at the palatial home of Debi’s surly father, for reasons that you will not care at all are totally contrived—Blank finally comes clean to Debi about why he hit the bricks: Whatever was happening to him in this town made him feel boxed in and panicked. “I realized, for the first time, that I wanted to kill somebody.”
By 29, I was into the seventh year of a job that paid shit, with two long-term relationships in my wake, no kids, no car I’d ever bought under my own power, no house and a boss who chewed me out in front of the whole office on the daily. My reward at the end of the day was to go home to nobody, and any of the normal ways out of the situation seemed impossible. So, I quit, dropped everything, and turned 30 living with my father and his found family in another country. I still had none of those other things, but I didn’t have them on my own terms. When I came back and eventually got married and became part of a family, it was because I knew it was what I wanted.
It’s easy to call Grosse Pointe Blank a Gen X movie because of the Cusacks, its soundtrack or the fact that the actors all so perfectly look like kids wearing their mediocrity like a regional manager wears an ill-fitting, off-the-rack suit. It’s very easy to see it as Jankiewicz’s weird, quirky, gimmicky little rom-com set in the place where he grew up. It’s nonetheless a perfect portrait of what it feels like to agonize over what you don’t have when you can’t even figure out what you even fucking want.
But it’s also just a good hitman movie, a great double feature alongside equally ludicrous (if more self-serious) fare like Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai or The Professional: Golgo 13. Duke Togo shooting through a building to assassinate a Nazi war criminal is so cool that it is ridiculous, and it has a sort of timeless feel to it. John Cusack bumping off Dan Aykroyd by bashing him over the head with the screen of a tube TV set, on the other hand, could only happen in 1997. It’s a perfect encapsulation of the movie and its beleaguered, bone-dry protagonist: Rooted in a particular place, with action, romance and laughs that all kill.