Singular in spirit and execution, “Grosse Pointe Blank” is hip without being cute, and absurd in a uniquely satisfying fashion. Definitely for rarefied tastes, the film is an artistic triumph and a supreme marketing challenge; making the material palatable to a general audience will require promotional acumen. But pic remains a commercial long shot, more apt to play a well-worn niche while confounding the masses.
The surface story has a mundane, unthreatening quality. Martin Blank (John Cusack) is a young man in crisis who’s desperately in need of some breathing space to make sense of his life. For the past decade he’s carved out a successful career as an independent assassin — one who works for the government.
As the film opens, he’s completed a successful operation, albeit in a manner not endorsed by his client. His chief competitor and the bane of his existence, Mr. Grocer (Dan Aykroyd), wants him to become part of a “union,” and Blank is naturally weary about joining forces. He’d like to take some time off to consider his options, but he has to do a “make-good.”
The upcoming weekend also happens to be his 10-year high school reunion in Grosse Pointe, Mich., a posh suburb of Detroit where, coincidentally, he’s compelled to do the hit. While he protests returning to his youthful haunt, it’s obvious that he also believes coming to terms with the past is the only way he’ll be able to confront the future.
The script, co-written by Cusack, effects a curious conceit. Though the protagonist could hardly be described as a typical working slob, his daily travails are otherwise as banal as anything to be found in a contempo romantic comedy. From a distance, story seems a tad precious, but the zeal and good nature of the cast overcome the artificial quality of the situations.
The key to what went wrong with Blank’s life rests with Debi Newberry (Minnie Driver), the prom date he stood up. She’s now a deejay, and Martin collects his courage and walks into her control booth. For some reason his explanation that he “freaked out, joined the Army and became a hit man” is met with skepticism. Still, there’s considerable attraction between the two.
Despite its offbeat trappings, “Grosse Pointe Blank” is foremost a romantic comedy. Its two central characters are likable, and we want to see them get together in the face of considerable obstacles. Cusack is charming and assured. There’s no question that his character understands the gravity of what he’s done and is capable of doing. He’d like to move on, but Driver’s Debi doesn’t want to let him off the hook so easily.
Among the rogue’s gallery of vivid supporting players, Alan Arkin is a standout as Martin’s traumatized shrink, who wasn’t let in on the nature of his client’s work until their fourth session, and who fears there’s no easy way to terminate their meetings. Also disarming is Joan Cusack, as the generally level-headed person running the hit man’s office.
Giddily directed by George Armitage — who’s been absent since the equally idiosyncratic “Miami Blues” in 1990 — pic never falters in tone. The filmmakers accentuate the pace with a jaunty music-and-song score and rat-a-tat editing by Brian Berdan. “Grosse Pointe Blank” reinvents the boy-gets-girl-back convention with a vengeance, and its characters who survive this assault emerge surprisingly stronger and happier