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CHRISTOPHER TAYLOR'S BOOKS

Monday, September 02, 2013

ROMANCE IN GROSSE POINTE

"You're a handsome devil, what's your name?"

John Cusack is one of my favorite actors.  Even back when he was doing silly teen movies like Sure Thing, he was always a cut above everyone else around him (other than Robert Downy jr).  His presence in a movie made it more interesting, more believable, and gave it a higher quality than, say, the Coreys or Tom Cruise, for all his earnest dedication and focus.
And one of my favorite movies is Grosse Pointe Blank.  Partly written by Cusack based on a story by Tom Jankiewicz, this is one of the best comedies of all time and well worth viewing if you have not.  The soundtrack is terrific, too.  Cusack worked on the dialog and he'd bounce his ideas off his friend and talented comedic actor Jeremy Piven (although watch him in Smokin' Aces for a different, powerful performance) to hone them and make them laugh.
The story is of Martin Blank, a hit man who's burnt out on his job.  He's consulting a shrink (played hilariously by Alan Arkin) who tried to get Blank to stop seeing him, and is pestered by a fellow hit man (played hilariously by Dan Akroyd, who does his best work as a supporting character) trying to form a hit man union.  Hank Azaria and K Todd Freeman as NSA types looking to rub out Blank once he tries to do his last hit.  Meanwhile, freelancer Benny Urquidez, martial arts movie heavy and champion kickboxer is after Blank for a hit that went bad - in Oregon (which everyone mispronounces) of all places.
On that Oregon pronounciation: people from the west coast of the USA tend to know how to pronounce the state, but other than that everyone seems confused.  Its pronounced "orygun" but most people say it "ora-gone."  I suspect Cusack and the rest knew better, but they weren't supposed to be from the west, so they said it wrong.
Martin Blank is from Detroit, Michigan; one of the nice parts of town (yes there are still some).  Grosse Pointe is old money, relatively speaking, in Detroit.  Its where all the auto tycoons like the Dodge Brothers and Henry Ford settled, creating a new super rich community of massive mansions.  So the Detroit shown in this movie isn't the decaying post-apocalyptic hell hole much of the rest of the city has become, it looks like an extremely high end nice part of any good place to live. They added an "e" at the end of Gross Point to make it seem classier.
Martin Blank comes back for his high school reunion in an attempt to reboot his life, staring over from being a contract killer to becoming a normal person.  There, he runs into the love of his life, one Debi Newberry played by Minnie Driver at her loveliest.  He disappeared on prom night of their senior year, and you'll have to see the film to understand why and how that works out.
But its Debi Newberry that I want to write about.  While I thought she was pretty, what struck me was something my brother said when he saw what movie it was.  Basically, he said "the romance in this movie doens't annoy me like most do."  And I thought about that - he was right.
Films like Major League are flawed by the romantic subplot, it gets in the way of the story and slows down the movie.  Its not fun, like the rest of the film, it interferes with the enjoyment of the story, and seems imposed on the film just to get a romance in so women will watch it, or some Hollywood exec logic.
In Grosse Pointe Blank, the romance is a critical, intregal part of the unfolding story, its a key to Martin Blank's redemption and growth as a character, and even more importantly, its consistently funny and entertaining.  And the most amazing thing is that this little silly comedy had one of the best parts for an actress that I've seen in decades.
Another film that this worked in was My Cousin Vinnie, where the romance was an important part of the film, well played, that advanced the story rather than bogged it down.  And in either a sneaky trick or amazing twist of voting, it earned Marisa Tomei an Oscar.
Unlike almost every single part ever written for a woman in Hollywood since, say, 1960, the part of Debi Newberry had depth and character.  She wasn't just a pretty girl for the main character to fall in love with for no apparent reason other than her being pretty, she was interesting to guys.  She was quirky and silly and feminine and thoughtful and smart.  She had a bit of bite to her, especially since Blank had walked out on her, but you could tell she still really really loved this guy.
Yet despite this love, she makes sure over time that he's really worth letting back in her life, she watches him carefully, studying how he reacts to things, what he does, why he does it, and won't let him close until she's very sure.  In other words, she behaves like not just a real woman, but a real, smart woman.
She's not a girl in women's clothing, she's not an emotional wreck, she's not controlled by her emotions or personal dreams.  She's very "grounded" as people put it, very solid and real and plausible.  And as a result, she's very much a girl that you could believe Martin Blank would fall for.
And then there's the scene where she confronts him about his assassin life. It reveals a tremendous amount about her and her understanding not just of life but morality:
DEBI: He was gonna kill you, right?
MARTIN: Yes.
DEBI: It wasn't the other way around?
MARTIN: No, no. That wasn't my intention.
DEBI: Is it something you've done?
MARTIN: It's something I do ..professionally, for about five years now.
DEBI: You were joking. People joke about the horrible things that they don't do. They don't do them. It's absurd.
MARTIN: When I left, I joined the Army. And when I took the service exam, my psych profile fit a certain... moral flexibility would be the only way to describe it. I was loaned out to a CIA-sponsored program. And we sort of found each other. That's the way it works.
DEBI: So, you... You're a government spook?
MARTIN: Yes... I mean no. I was before, but I'm not now. But that's all irrelevant really. The idea of governments, nations, is public-relations theory...
DEBI: I don't want the theories. I wanna hear about the dead people. Explain the dead people. Who do you kill?
MARTIN: Well, that's very complicated, but in the beginning, you know, it matters, of course, that you have something to hang onto, you know, a specific ideology to defend, right? I mean, taming unchecked aggression, that was my personal favorite. Others liked "live free or die." But you get the idea. But that's all bulls**t and I know that now. You do it because you were trained to do it, you were encouraged to do it, and ultimately, you know, you get to like it.
I know that sounds bad.
DEBI: You're a psychopath.
MARTIN: No, no, no. A psychopath kills for no reason. I kill for money. It's a job.
That didn't sound right. Let me see if I can put it another way. If I show up at your door, chances are you did something to bring me there. Everybody's doing it. It's like the natural order. I mean, the states do it.   Sometimes there's due process and sometimes pilots carpet-bomb cities, you know? Riot cops shoot demonstrators. That's indiscriminate. I don't do that.
You should read the files on some of these f**kers. I mean, it reads like a demon's résumé.
Look, I bottomed out here. I've lost my taste for it completely. That's why I came back. And I wanted to see you. I wanted to start over, leave that behind.
DEBI: So I'm part of... I'm part of your romantic new beginning, right?
How come you never learned that it was wrong? That there are certain things you do not do, you do not do in a civilized society?
MARTIN: What civilizations are we talking about?...
DEBI: Shut up.
MARTIN: I mean, history...
DEBI: Shut up. Everything about you is a lie. Everything. Stay away from me.
MARTIN: Debi, don't go.
DEBI: You don't get to have me. Don't you get it?
MARTIN: You're overreacting.
DEBI (sarcastically): Yeah.
Now, technically, he never lied to her.  Every time someone asked him what he did, he told them the truth, but nobody really believed him.  They thought it was a joke, and didn't take him seriously - other than Debi's dad who I think probably did believe him.
But I understand her.  She watched him to see what he was like, and she saw him being a better person, avoiding conflict, being kind and good.  And then she finds out that for years he's been a heartless killer for hire, a man who enjoyed murdering people.  The conflict is too raw and shocking, and it seems his whole time with her has been a lie.
Now her justification for why its wrong to kill people is weak (as Cusack starts to point out) but I do like her whole attitude: she won't put up with any mealy mouthed relativist crap.  She will not allow him to weasel out of things with nuances and arguments of situational ethics.  Right is right and wrong is wrong and she will not tolerate any weasling out of that.  And she's right: you should know that's just not right to do, and he never figured it out until recently, and that says something very awful about him.
However, he has changed, he did figure it out, and he is not lying when he says he totally lost the taste for it.  And the movie handles very well (I thought) how he proves himself to her, but at the end of this scene she runs away horrified and bawling at what she's opened herself up to, you can almost see her showering with steel wool when she gets home, trying to scrub away the taint of such a monster on her.
And that's what's missing so often in storywriting and especially film.  Almost every time some girl is a love interest, she's an empty body, a blank slate that's beautiful and sexy and that's pretty much it.  And to make matters worse, if they do attempt to make the woman interesting, they fail utterly.
Often its like this scene in 1998's Lost in Space:

MAUREEN: Am I interrupting something? No. Really. I think you two should go ahead and slug it out. I mean, here we are stranded on an alien world and you boys want to get into a pissing contest. So please, go for it. I'll have Judy down here in a heartbeat to declare you both unfit and I'll take over this mission. Now I don't want to hear another word from you two until you can play nice. Is that clear? 
WEST: Maureen- Listen- 
MAUREEN: Not another word. (a beat) Better. Now if you've finished hosing down the decks with testosterone, I suggest you come with me. I may have found a way to get us off this planet. 
(The two men exchange a look of admiration)
WEST: Wow. 
JOHN: Tell me about it.
Now, that's supposed to make her seem interesting and strong, but all it does is make her seem unlikable.  But the guys are directed by the script to think she's amazing rather than be very annoyed.  The writers don't really seem to comprehend how women act, let alone how guys respond to it.
Another device used is the "independent woman" angle, which Grosse Point Blank did so well, but they can't seem to do.  Instead of making her independent, they make the woman obnoxious, selfish, and completely disinterested in the slightest thing about the guy.  She doesn't come across as a strong individual but a selfish, childish individual who cares only about her dreams and goals and has absolutely no interest whatsoever in bending or adapting to him.  He has to change, he has to put up with her, he has to give up his dreams and aspirations and wait on her.  That's as wrong as the opposite, yet its so common in films and it never, ever ceases to annoy me.  I can't help but think of Meredith Brooks' 90s hit "Bitch":
Just when you think, you got me figured out
The season's already changing
I think it's cool, you do what you do
And don't try to save me
I don't have to explain or give in, you do.  I don't have to try to do what's right by you, you have to always put up with me and nothing I do is wrong or should change.
Just a hint, girls: this isn't attractive, and neither is a guy who'll put up with that.  Deep down you know that even if you don't think so now.
So Grosse Pointe Blank managed to portray a romance in a way that not only appeals to men (and women), but made for a very interesting female character who was attractive for far more than her looks.  And it did it all without losing its humor and intelligence.  That's so rare in film, I had to write about it.

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