Grosse Pointe Blank (United States, 1997)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Grosse Pointe Blank should come with a warning against advertisement-induced expectations which might diminish a viewer's appreciation of the film. The previews and TV commercials make the movie look like a frothy romantic comedy. In reality, Grosse Pointe Blank is a bleak, black satire that occasionally strays all the way into Pulp Fiction territory. That's certainly not a bad thing, but it isn't what the marketing people at Hollywood Pictures are selling the movie as.

One of the strangest rituals of American life is the High School Reunion. Even if you recall your teen years with a blissful sense of nostalgia, does it make sense to come back ten, twenty, or thirty years later to spend one evening with a bunch of people that you haven't thought about in decades? Chances are, you've stayed in contact with anyone worth keeping in touch with, and the only reason for going to a reunion is to flash your newfound fame and wealth in front of everyone, all of whom are trying to do exactly the same thing. It's a bizarre situation of twisted one-upmanship, and Grosse Pointe Blank's Martin Blank (John Cusack) finds himself enmeshed in such circumstances when he reunites with his graduating class of 1986.

Martin's profession is a bit more exotic than that of any of his former schoolmates. After joining the army and spending five years as a covert operative for the CIA (during this stint, he killed the President of Paraguay with a fork), he went into business for himself as a hit man. Over the years, Martin has developed quite a reputation. His latest job requires him to return to Grosse Pointe, Michigan during the weekend of his ten-year high school reunion. So, on the advice of his reluctant therapist (Alan Arkin), he agrees to try to patch things up with his one true love, Debi (Minnie Driver), and attend the event. Things don't exactly go as planned, however. A rival hit man (Dan Aykroyd) shows up, and soon bullets are flying all over Grosse Pointe.

The script for Grosse Pointe Blank is laced with acid wit. Its cynical observations about big business, as embodied by the formation of a "hit mens' union", are deliciously on-target. The quirky dialogue is often clever, and the film as a whole contains its share of darkly funny moments. There are also a number of subtle sight gags, such as a cardboard cut-out of the Pulp Fiction cast that gets shot up during a gun fight. Grosse Pointe Blank, directed by George Armitage (Miami Blues), has an audacious edge, but, at times, the film's daring actually works against its success. Take the case of one particularly gruesome murder. While we expect this sort of graphic image in a violent action movie, it seems out of place here.

There are other problems as well. The pacing is choppy and erratic, possibly as the result of a poor editing job (the four credited screenwriters could also have something to do with it). Sizable chunks of Grosse Pointe Blank may have ended up on the cutting room floor. There are subplots without beginnings or ends and characters that suddenly appear or disappear. There are also occasions when the movie goes for inappropriately broad humor. Take, for example, the minor characters who show up at the reunion. They are the kind of silly, overblown types you might expect to find on a TV sit-com, but not in a reasonably sophisticated noir comedy.

John Cusack, one of America's most likable actors, plays a sympathetic anti-hero. Cusack seems comfortable in the role of a loner who's not really as bad as everyone thinks he is. Martin rationalizes his job by saying that everyone he kills deserves it. He's starting to have doubts, though, partially as a result of a contract that someone put out on his life. Apparently, the consequences of not joining the hit mens' union are rather drastic, but Martin just doesn't want to be bothered with having to go to the meetings.

As much as I appreciated Minnie Driver's work in Circle of Friends, Sleepers, and Big Night, she has been miscast here. The statuesque actress is never especially convincing as Debi, and many of her scenes with Cusack seem strained (especially their first meeting at the radio station). The lack of tangible chemistry between them nullifies any romantic tension. Meanwhile, Dan Aykroyd, Alan Arkin, and Joan Cusack (as Martin's secretary) all have pleasantly comic supporting turns. In fact, Aykroyd's performance here is one of his best in a long time.

Even though Armitage's feature doesn't satisfy on all levels, it's offbeat enough to warrant at least a lukewarm recommendation. Ultimately, the film offers sufficient small pleasures to make it worth enduring the less effective elements. As a result, while Grosse Pointe Blank fails to deliver a fullisade, at least the chamber's not empty, either.

Grosse Pointe Blank (United States, 1997)

Run Time: 1:47
U.S. Release Date: 1997-04-11
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1