The final audience selection happens to be one of my favorite movies.
Martin Q. Blank (John Cusack) is a professional hitman whose latest job was botched by a rival killer named Grocer (Dan Aykroyd), who wishes to form a hitman’s union. Martin’s assistant, Marcella (Joan Cusack), lets him know that he’s been invited to his 10 year high school reunion, which he rejects. Martin finds out that his next job is going to be in his hometown of Grosse Pointe, Michigan, at the same time as the reunion. Martin sees his therapist Dr. Oatman (Alan Arkin), who convinces him to go as a way of dealing with his growing apathy towards contract killing.
In Grosse Pointe, Martin meets his old friend Paul (Jeremy Piven) and his ex-girlfriend Debi (Minnie Driver), who is now the local DJ. Martin had left Debi at the Prom their Senior Year because he freaked out and joined the Army. He goes to visit his mother (Barbara Harris), who is suffering from dementia, and finds that his former home has been bulldozed and replaced by a mini-mart. Grocer discovers that his clients have given the Grosse Pointe job to Martin, so Grocer leaks Martin’s whereabouts to two NSA agents (K. Todd Freeman and Hank Azaria). Also, due to Martin accidentally killing a dog during a previous job, a hitman named LaPoubelle (Benny Urquidez) arrives in town to try and kill Blank. Despite all of this, Martin repeatedly postpones the hit, or even opening the folder to learn his target’s identity. Whenever anyone asks what happened to Martin, he tells them that he’s a hitman. They always believe him to be joking.
Martin meets up with Debi again and asks her to go with him to the reunion. When he picks her up, he meets with her father, Bart (Mitchell Ryan), who mostly ignores Martin. At the reunion, Martin and Debi meet with some old classmates and exchange fun moments. After the pair have sex in a private room at the school, Martin is attacked by LaPoubelle, whom he kills in self-defense. Debi finds Martin with the body and leaves, but Paul helps Martin dispose of the corpse. Debi later confronts Martin, who reveals that when he joined the Army, they said he had a special “moral flexibility” which made him attractive to the CIA. The CIA then made Martin an assassin until he left. Martin’s attempts to rationalize his work only drive her away.
Martin has an emotional breakthrough after talking to Debi and decides to quit, having Marcella destroy the office. He finally opens the target information and is shocked to find that it’s Debi’s father, Bart, who was set to testify against some of Martin’s clients. Grocer tries to kill Martin along with his union assassins, but Martin kills them all, as well as the NSA agents. Martin proposes to Debi, who doesn’t respond. Later, it’s revealed that the two are leaving Grosse Pointe together, trying to give their relationship one last shot.
This was narrowly the most nominated film of the final audience poll, which was also the poll with the most nominations (totalling 140, including duplicates). Unfortunately, Grosse Pointe Blank was also, originally, going to be my choice for Best Soundtrack, so I had to replace that day with Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing, which worked out fine. This way I got to do two of my favorite films and support democracy in the process.
I consider this film to be one of the pinnacles of dark comedy and it sets that tone immediately. The film opens with the song “I Can See Clearly Now” playing while Martin is having a casual conversation with Marcella, only for him to reveal a sniper rifle. It appears that Martin is supposed to kill a person leaving the building, only for him to actually be protecting that person, having him kill another assassin when the song crescendos to “Bright, Bright Sunshine-y Day.” Immediately after this, Martin, confident that the job is done, turns away from the window, only for Dan Aykroyd to come out and murder the target anyway. It’s a series of humorous, albeit dark, subversions that are only elevated by the soundtrack choice. That’s pretty much the entire movie wrapped up in a nutshell, and it works amazingly well. Later, you get the same feeling from a shootout to “Ace of Spades” by Motörhead.
Because of the tone, this film constantly had to walk a fine line. You had to make Martin Blank simultaneously likable enough that we want to root for him, but also the kind of person that would become a contract killer in the first place. That’s what makes Doctor Oatman such a great element to this movie (aside from giving us an excuse to see Alan Arkin), because it allows Blank to try and speak honestly about how he justifies his career to himself. He tries to constantly talk his way around it, including cliches like “what a person does for a living is not a reflection of who he is,” but Oatman always treats Martin’s job like what it is: Killing people. The fact that Martin keeps going back to him shows that Martin is actually trying to force the reality of what he does onto himself in an attempt to quit. With anyone less charming or less able to deliver the lines with sincerity than John Cusack, this movie would fail completely, but Cusack constantly represents both a cold and calculating murderer and also a sad human being who is wracked with regrets that he covers up with quips.
Minnie Driver’s performance as Debi is almost equally nuanced. She’s the person who has never quite gotten over the one that got away. She’s been hurt, and we find out that she’s even tried to get past it, even being married briefly, but that she never had the connection with anyone else that she had with Martin. When he comes back, she is conflicted between her desire to give him another shot and her undeniable attraction to him. If it weren’t for Driver’s ability to look like she’s always trying to restrain herself throughout the film, it wouldn’t work. Instead, we understand when she gives in and kisses Martin, but also when she’s trying to keep herself from doing so.
The supporting cast is also amazing. Joan Cusack, whose banter with John is colored just a little in just the right way by their real-life familial relationship, plays the perfect assistant, never judging her boss, but always wanting to help him as both a hitman and a person. Dan Aykroyd brings a comic flair to an antagonist, so much that you almost can’t hate him for what he does. The concept of a hitman who wants to unionize the profession seems laughable, but Aykroyd’s off-kilter performance makes you believe that if there was a person who would try it, it’s him. Jeremy Piven’s character almost seems like a predecessor to his role as Ari Gold on Entourage. He’s always trying to make himself seem bigger and more interesting than he is, but when you need someone to help you move a body, he’s there. Hank Azaria and K. Todd Freeman are great as a pair of Federal agents with differing opinions about how the justice system works, and who also just enjoy messing with Blank. Alan Arkin is a treasure as always.
The script is amazing. Just like with Cusack’s performance, it has to walk a thin line, but it does it beautifully. It’s filled with great lines that reveal more about our characters while also deepening the portrayal. Most of Blank’s lines are dark jokes referencing his past or present, including making quick threats against Doctor Oatman or trying to tell everyone he meets about the truth of his circumstances. The movie trusts its audience to follow along at a fairly rapid pace, but it gives you just enough time to breathe before the gunfights to catch up.
Then there’s the soundtrack. The soundtrack was composed by Joe Strummer from the Clash and includes a great mix of 1980s and 1990s hits. Pretty much the entire movie has some contemporary song playing either in the background or over the scene, resulting in so many songs being featured that there are two soundtrack albums with a full baker’s dozen left unreleased. Throughout much of the film, the music complements the scene, including an amazing use of “99 Red Balloons” during an almost slapstick-esque body disposal. It both evokes the same nostalgia that the characters are feeling throughout the events and also heightens the ironic tone of many of the scenes.
Overall, this film is just brilliant. I recommend seeing it if you haven’t. It’s worth the $3 rental. Or wait for it to come back on Netflix.
If you want to check out some more by the Joker on the Sofa, check out the 100 Greatest TV Episodes of All Time, Collection of TV Episodes, Collection of Movie Reviews, or the Joker on the Sofa Reviews.
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