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Tag Archives: John Cusack

6 Good Actors Whose Careers Confound Me

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There are times when I’d like to take certain good actors aside and simply ask them, “What the hell is going on with you?” Clearly, something has happened to pull them into a lengthy rut of bad or mediocre projects. I’d just like to know what it is.

MATTHEW BRODERICK

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At some point, several years ago, Broderick’s film work downshifted from intelligent/neurotic to intelligent/low-key. Then he continued on to intelligent/wake-me-when-my-scene-starts. Perhaps the former star of such brilliant films as “Election” and the iconic “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” decided to confine his charisma to his much-lauded stage work. Even so, I’d love to see him fully engage in a movie part that offers a wider range of emotions than self-loathing and ironic detachment.

ANDRE BRAUGHER

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I’ll start by acknowledging that Braugher, one of my favorite actors, continues to do fine work, primarily on TV. He was excellent in “Men of a Certain Age,” and some guest appearances on “House,” for instance. My quibble is that this guy has the gravitas to do Shakespeare, “Death of a Salesman” – or at least a big-time project on HBO. Anyone who saw even one of his scenes in the old “Homicide” series knows what I mean.

WINONA RYDER

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It pains me to think there are people who know Ryder more for her personal problems (shoplifting and the like) than for her excellent performances in such films as “Heathers,” “Reality Bites” and “Little Women.” Her talent back then was considerable, and presumably it still resides within her. Why, then, was she playing Spock’s MOM in the “Star Trek” reboot?

ADAM ARKIN

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I think Arkin is a brilliant actor, a rare combination of intelligence, sarcasm, physicality and soulfulness. Yet he seems to pop up only fleetingly, such as his wonderful character work in last year’s “The Sessions.” He tends to play smaller roles as bosses, husbands, lawyers and shrinks. Just once, I’d like to see a project that revolves entirely around him.

PAUL RUDD

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You know what I can’t figure out about Rudd’s career? It’s that he’s terrific in splashy, supporting roles (“Anchorman,” “Knocked Up”) but kind of bland in leading roles (“Admission,” “Dinner for Schmucks”). There has to be a way to take his supporting actor spark and expand it when he’s carrying a whole movie.

JOHN CUSACK

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I watched “The Grifters” not long ago and found myself wondering what happened to that John Cusack guy. The guy who was amazing in “High Fidelity” and “Being John Malkovich.” God knows I have a ton of respect for Cusack’s disdain for conventionality, but I humbly think it’s time for him to move beyond stuff like “Hot Tub Time Machine” and “The Raven.”

Fingers crossed that better films and TV projects are in the works for all of them.

You Lookin’ at Me? Breaking the Fourth Wall

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There’s no better way to add some zing to a TV show or movie than to have a character suddenly turn and talk to the audience. Sure, it’s cheating. But if the character happens to have some charisma, it’s also fun. Here’s a toast to the best instances of breaking down that fourth wall.

IT’S GARRY SHANDLING’S SHOW

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In his innovative 1980s comedy series, Garry Shandling made breaking the fourth wall the centerpiece of the whole show. He’d ask the audience questions and solicit their advice. The other characters on the show also were in on the trick. Garry treated the sitcom as the artificial absurdity that it is, but always with his trademark light touch. Even his theme song, “This is the Theme to Garry’s Show,” acknowledged the audience.

HIGH FIDELITY

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This was one of John Cusack’s best roles, and it worked precisely because of his interaction with viewers. Every eye roll, aside and bit of rage revealed that this guy wasn’t just a sarcastic slacker. He had depth.

THE BERNIE MAC SHOW

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Bernie Mac didn’t just talk to his sitcom viewers, whom he simply called, “America.” He cajoled them. He persuaded them. It allowed him to be as gruff as he wanted to be in the rest of his scenes. We still knew he was a pushover.

GROUCHO MARX, IN EVERYTHING

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Quite possibly the most devastating comedian who ever lived. Groucho was a verbal master, slicing up his conversational victims with glee. He had so many great lines, there were always extras to be tossed right at the camera. Here’s one from “Animal Crackers”: “This would be a better world for children if the parents had to eat the spinach.”

FERRIS BUELLER’S DAY OFF

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“Ferris Bueller” is a cultural touchstone of the 1980s – something it owes to both Matthew Broderick and the way he made his case directly to moviegoers. It was like having lunch at the cool kids’ table, all day long.

HOUSE OF CARDS

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The current king of this category is Kevin Spacey in “House of Cards,” hands-down. He absolutely commands the TV screen, spinning his intricate web of politics and power. When he turns to the camera, you know you’re about to hear something hideous AND hilarious.

ANNIE HALL

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In “Annie Hall,” you have Woody Allen at the top of his game. At various points, chosen very shrewdly, he tells the audience what he thinks about relationships, therapy and the work of Marshall McLuhan.

MOONLIGHTING

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“Moonlighting,” the popular TV romantic comedy of the 1980s, spent almost as much time beyond the fourth wall as it did in its own world. Cybill Shepherd and Bruce Willis were naturals at it. I loved when they took a few moments to answer their viewer mail.

30 ROCK

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Tina Fey and Co. broke the fourth wall a bunch of times, but one particular instance was sublime. It’s from the Season Four premiere, when the show aired just before Jay Leno’s ill-fated 10 p.m. variety show. Liz Lemon and Jack Donaghy are watching a crass promo for “Tennis Night in America,” when Donaghy says, “There’s nothing wrong with being fun and popular and just giving people what they want.” Then he stares into the camera and purrs, “Ladies and gentlemen, Jay Leno.”

SLEEPWALK WITH ME

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Mike Birbiglia perfectly blends his comic persona with the needs of a feature film by personally narrating key portions of “Sleepwalk With Me,” which is based on his own life. One of his best quips is, “I know! I’m in the future also!”

MALCOLM IN THE MIDDLE

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Young Malcolm, the genius child in a family of nutjobs, constantly sought comfort by talking with his TV fans. It was a way of saying, “Is it just me, or are these people crazy?”

JFK

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This example is brief, but powerful. It comes at the end of the film, as Kevin Costner’s prosecutor character tries to make a jury believe there was a hidden conspiracy at work in the Kennedy assassination. With one final move of the camera, the audience suddenly becomes Costner’s jury.

THE TWILIGHT ZONE

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Perhaps this isn’t appropriate, since I’m not including other TV hosts on the List. Oh, hell. I simply have to mention the great Rod Serling. He wasn’t just a host – he was our guide, giving us fair warning about the weird stuff heading our way.

ALFIE

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For me, there’s never been a better fourth wall breakdown than Michael Caine in “Alfie.” With his cold stare and heavy eyelids, Caine is a predator in search of sexual conquest. His confessions to the camera show us his cruelty, his self-delusions and his failure as a human being. It’s brilliant.

Of course, this is a mere sampling of great examples. You also have “Airplane,” “Animal House” and so many others. What are your favorites?

Great Cast, Terrible Movie

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Sometimes, a movie’s casting math just doesn’t add up. You get a couple of terrific leads, surround them with dynamite supporting players and you end up with – a great big mess. It’s quite amazing, actually. Here are some of my favorite, star-studded disasters.

MIXED NUTS (1994)

Get a load of this cast: Steve Martin, Adam Sandler, Jon Stewart, Madeline Kahn, Garry Shandling, Robert Klein and Rob Reiner, plus Liev Schreiber, Rita Wilson, Juliette Lewis and Anthony LaPaglia. Its a comedy juggernaut, except it’s really, really not. This royal stinker, about a suicide hotline at Christmas, is stunningly bad.

AIRPORT ’77

I could have chosen just about any disaster flick of the 1970s, such as “Earthquake,” or “The Towering Inferno,” but this is the one I always found particularly annoying. You had heavyweights such as Jack Lemmon, Jimmy Stewart, Olivia de Havilland, Joseph Cotten, M. Emmet Walsh, Christopher Lee and, of course, George Kennedy, all pretending they were in a better movie.

AMERICA’S SWEETHEARTS (2001)

This one is inexplicable. The cast included John Cusack, Julia Roberts, Billy Crystal, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Christopher Walken, Stanley Tucci, Alan Arkin, Seth Green and Rainn Wilson. To say this romantic comedy didn’t gel is a vast understatement.

LOVE AFFAIR (1994)

Speaking of bad romantic comedies, this Warren Beatty-Annette Bening picture is one of the worst ever. It’s stultifyingly bad. The thing is, it also dragged down the great Katharine Hepburn, Garry Shandling, Pierce Brosnan, Harold Ramis and Lisa Edelstein with it. This was no way to treat Hollywood royalty.

SHADOWS AND FOG (1991)

I’m using one example here to represent the many, later-period Woody Allen films that wasted great casts. “Shadows and Fog,” an ode to German expressionist films, was a boring movie that seemed to taunt audiences with all the talent going underutilized: Woody, Mia Farrow, John Malkovich, John Cusack, Jodie Foster, Lily Tomlin, Kathy Bates, William H. Macy, John C. Reilly, Wallace Shawn and Madonna. And that’s just a partial list.

EARTH GIRLS ARE EASY (1988)

Underneath all that colorful fur are Jim Carrey, Damon Wayans and Jeff Goldblum. It’s a shame, really. The movie makes a great effort to be fun and funky – but that fur!? Come on. Also along for the ride are Geena Davis and Michael McKean.

DEATH TO SMOOCHY (2002)

Dark, dark comedy here that might have been too caustic for its own good. It’s a story about egos gone amok in the children’s entertainment industry, with valiant efforts by Robin Williams, Edward Norton, Catherine Keener, Jon Stewart and Danny DeVito. No sale.

SPHERE (1998)

Sorry, but Dustin Hoffman in space does not work for me. When I see Hoffman, Samuel L. Jackson, Sharon Stone and Liev Schreiber on a cast list together, I want a feisty, gritty urban drama – not a cold, slow-moving space thriller.

THE AVENGERS (1998)

This update on the stylish Brit TV series is a bit of a steaming pile, wot wot. It’s like some horrible hallucination in which Ralph Fiennes, Uma Thurman, Sean Connery, Jim Broadbent and Eddie Izzard recite gibberish and run around in odd clothing. As I mentioned in a previous list, Connery actually dons a teddy bear costume in this one. Yikes.

BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES (1990)

Tom Wolfe’s famous novel about class collisions in New York City made for a glorious train wreck of a film. There was absolutely no chemistry, and often the actors seemed to be taking wild stabs at how to play the material. We may never see Tom Hanks, Bruce Willis, Morgan Freeman and Kirsten Dunst in another movie together.

That should get us started. Add to The List!