The key question concerning "Grosse Pointe Blank" isn't whether it's any good (it is) but whether anybody other than three critics, nine film students and its own creators will get it.
This is one of those specialized deadpan-hip items, mining a narrow vein of macabre humor between the tasteless and the stupid; you either connect or you don't, and the connectors and the non-connectors will have very little to say to the other. They should probably not even be married to each other.
Think of it as a comedy styling on Stallone's dolorous, ponderous "Assassins" or John Woo's "The Killer" as re-interpreted by John Waters. John Cusack plays Martin Blank, a nice suburban boy who, on the day of his 1986 graduation from Grosse Pointe High, with his girlfriend poured into a $700 prom dress, simply disappears from the face of the earth, breaking everybody's heart and leaving a vacuum behind him.
Actually, he's gone Army, CIA and, inevitably, free-lance. His thing: surgical murder. Murder without mess, fuss, sweat or muss. What's "funny" about all this is that his genius for mayhem is so advanced, he's on autopilot. He kills the way most people scramble eggs or listen to the radio, that is, while paying more attention to something else.
As a source of laughter, this is almost endlessly amusing, and the director, George Armitage, knows it. The comic mechanism of the film is to push Blank -- Cusack's limp, pale, slacker's face with its tiny jot of mouth is perfect -- into extravagant scenes of violence, which he deals with at the mechanical level but otherwise hardly notices. Meanwhile, he's attending to "issues" -- his obsessive love for the old girlfriend (Minnie Driver), for one, or his hysterical relationship with his very nervous shrink (Alan Arkin).
The setting is the same Grosse Pointe he abandoned a decade ago. By cruel fate (that is, clever screenwriters), he's gone back to a hometown social event as cover for a job he believes will be his last. Other plot strands yield mixed results: His pursuit by two government agents goes nowhere, while more entertainingly, his workplace -- world-class professional murder -- is being unionized by another killer (Dan Aykroyd) so that the boys don't trip over each other. This, naturally, leads to those annoying office squabbles, waged with .357s and Glocks.
But the subject of the film really isn't murder. It's something far more important: high school. The movie gets with frightening perception the intense attraction-repulsion of an event clearly conceived on a very hot day in hell, a "reunion." As Munch's man on the bridge said when he was invited back to his, "AIEEEEEEEEEE!"
This is the deal where you go after a decade to learn that no matter what's going on in real life, back here it's still senior year: The same girls won't talk with you, and they're still beautiful, damn it. And you're still on the outside, double-damn-it. But for Martin Blank, that feeling of alienation is somewhat exacerbated by the fact that he can't quite say, "I killed the president of Ecuador with a fork; what have you been up to?"
Driver, now an attitude-rich DJ at a progressive FM station, shares his alienation, and one can see why they were a couple in high school: They were intellectual loners, never in elite jock society, yet too sharp for grunge. Rare enough, the movie wears its upper-middle-class sensibility like an X-cap backward on its head, daring anybody to knock it off.
The director, Armitage, is a peculiarity in the business. He works infrequently, but well; he's a specialist in the offbeat and the atonal, exactly the kind of thing to make studio execs nervous. His last big film was more than a decade ago, "Miami Blues," which had a similarly strange sensibility, following a decidedly funky, anti-heroic cop in his pursuit of a nasty piece of ex-con.
He's really in sync with the material, but his oddness expresses itself in the abruptness of tone shifts. He's always throwing you off with the completely unexpected: Cusack's sister Joan, for example, appears as the killer's highly daffy secretary, and is just pure fun with her demented line readings; but then the movie will switch to a strange, sad little vignette where Martin visits his mother in a home and sees that his defection to spook-life has disconnected her from reality.
"Grosse Pointe Blank" is that rarest of all American avians these days: a studio picture that wants to provoke you, not just steal your wallet and bloat your gut with $9 bags of popcorn.
'Grosse Pointe Blank'
Starring John Cusack and Minnie Driver
Directed by George Armitage
Released by Hollywood Films
Rated R (violence, sexual innuendo)
Sun score ***
Pub Date: 4/11/97