John Cusack in ADULT WORLD: No More Mr. Nice Guy

John Cusack in ADULT WORLD: No More Mr. Nice Guy


Several times during his turn as Rat Billings, the grizzled
poet at the heart of Adult World, I wanted to punch John Cusack in the face.
It’s a brilliant performance. In the quirky solar system of odd personalities
making up this tale of a young Syracuse grad who wants desperately to be a
published poet and takes Rat as her guide, Cusack makes an erstwhile and unfriendly
sun: the other characters float around Rat like so many misfit asteroids. While
some aspects of the film have an indie-fied clunk to them, Adult World works beautifully as a sad, sensitive character study,
in which two people who could not be more different find some common ground—even
if that common ground involves hostility. The main story of the film—a young
poet needs money, finds work at a porn store, meets lots of interesting, kind
people, and learns something about herself in the process—seems grossly outshadowed
by the Krazy-Kat-and-Ignatz-style love-hate relationship between Cusack and his
young would-be protégé.

This is a curious film, because the key characteristic that
Cusack has always offered his audience is a certain comfort born of geniality.
His emotional highs and emotional lows are always mitigated by a gentle squint
and a soft, vaguely raspy voice. Even when he is seething with romantic rage as
Rob in High Fidelity, or assassinating people with high efficiency in Grosse Pointe
, or swindling smoothly in The Grifters, you feel sympathy with him: sure,
he just killed a man, but he must be an okay guy, deep down, right? This feeling
we have might stem not so much from an effort on Cusack’s part to please
audiences as from a certain relaxation with the camera—his tendency to “play
himself” in films has been well-documented. His performance in this film gives
little of the prior sense of comfort. Cusack might well be relaxed in the role,
but it’s what he’s relaxing into that’s

Rat is a certain kind of writing professor, whom anyone who
has gone through a writing program might recognize (director Scott Coffey must
have done his research): once proud, once tough and able to toss off bons mots with great ease, now settled
into teaching at a university, not as well-praised, pushing himself through
writing courses, possibly wondering if the whole thing is worth continuing, and
taking it out on his students. When Amy (Emma Roberts), an ambitious young
writer just out of college, forces herself on him in an effort to learn from
him, he literally runs away from her—as he does from his students at the end of
one of his writing classes. When the two of them have their first conversation,
everything about Rat suggests enclosure: the way he folds his arms and legs in
on himself, the pursed frown, and the cold look in his eyes, which he maintains
throughout the film. Rat’s nastiness comes out most interestingly in the
details, the small things he does. At one point, early in their acquaintance,
Rat asks Amy, “Did Leyner put you up to this? Did Mark…?” Although Cusack and
Mark Leyner, author of urbane humor classics Et Tu, Babe, My Cousin, My
, and The Sugar-Frosted Nutsack, among others, are
offscreen friends (they wrote War, Inc. together), mentioning Leyner says a lot
about Rat, or what he once was: a young, cocksure, hip, attitudinal upstart who
drew an audience in the early 1990s through his sarcasm and seeming toughness.
At another moment, after Amy has thrown herself at Rat in a drunken stupor, she
ends up in his lap: he heaves her, without much sentiment, onto a sofa, as if
to show what he really thinks of her. His nastiness comes out in broad strokes
too, of course; as he is about to slam his front door on Amy, he tosses off,
“You’re the kind of muse I’d get,” and she’s thrilled, too naïve to hear the
sarcasm. When he meets Amy’s parents, he confides to her mother that she “lacks
all knowledge.”  When a student in his class
asks if a poem’s interpretation will be “on the test,” he tells her, “You’ll be
tested every day, for the rest of your life, and you know what? You’ll fail.” The
director tries to give Rat some moments of tenderness, at the very end of the
film, but it rings falsely; somehow, for him to call Amy a “stem against the
tide,” after having misled her in various ways which I won’t spoil, isn’t quite

The film is carried, for the most part, by Cusack’s toned-down
but tuned-in performance, though Coffey’s supporting cast is strong as can be.
Funnily enough, John Cullum and Cloris Leachman play the owners of the porn store that gives the movie its title and gives Amy a job:
Cullum’s most famous role in the last 25 years was as Holling in the TV cult favorite Northern
, in which his character married a woman a quarter his age, and Leachman
made a breakthrough performance in The
Last Picture Show
, as a football coach’s wife who cheats on her husband with a
teen-aged Timothy Bottoms. Though there is no romance between Rat and Amy, Coffey seems to nod to its possibility with his casting choices. Evan Peters, as the perky, well-adjusted porn store
manager, may be wildly miscast, but it’s easy to forgive, given the exuberance
and energy he brings to the part. Roberts herself could best be described as
intrepid; she brings as much magnitude as she can to what is, essentially, a
“straight man” role,” that is, playing off of Rat’s jaded, tired, vaguely
poisonous energy. There are many times where the movie’s seams show, where
Coffey hits us over the head with a wanna-be tale of “uplift” and “finding
yourself.” But the most interesting aspect of the film is its significance in
Cusack’s career. This part, along with his performance as convict Hillary in
The Paperboy or Richard Nixon in Lee Daniels’ The Butler, are a long way from his performance as
Lloyd Dobler in Say Anything. It will be enjoyable, if unnerving, to see where Cusack turns

Max Winter is the Editor of Press Play.

CANNES 2012: Lee Daniels’ THE PAPERBOY

CANNES 2012: Lee Daniels’ THE PAPERBOY


In Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire, Lee Daniels deplorably used sizzling pigs' hooves, mommy issues, and incestuous rape to shed light (ineptly) on the difficulties of growing up black in a broken home. In The Paperboy, he alternatively sends up and embraces hick stereotypes while also mootly insisting that issues of race and sex are, like, complicated. So, when not switching between mocking and then sympathizing with his execrably two-tone characters, Daniels makes pat statements about passion and prejudice. Based on Peter Dexter’s novel by the same name, The Paperboy is so trite and rabidly campy that you often have to wonder what you should and shouldn't be laughing at.

Daniels loves to pick on and then half-assedly elevate soft targets as martyrs. High School Musical's Zac Efron plays Jack, a former collegiate swimmer and part-time journalist. Jack is also the subject of a true story Anita (Macy Gray) recounts, decades after the film's events have taken place. The time is 1965, and the place is Moat County, Florida, where the white folks are mostly racist and clueless. As newspaperman Jack joins his brother Ward (Matthew McConaughey), their nymphomaniacal collaborator Charlotte (a self-debasing Nicole Kidman), and Yardley (David Oyelowo), a black writer from London, to investigate the case of convicted death row prisoner Hillary (a deliriously on-point John Cusack), they inadvertently uncover just how obnoxious a Lee Daniels movie can get in the name of ostensibly self-aware humor and indefensibly trite humanism.

That’s right, Daniels tries to be funny sometimes, a concept that totally undermines scenes in whixh he's trying to show sympathy for his characters. The scene of Charlotte and Hillary's first meeting is one such moment, in which Daniels mercilessly pokes fun at both characters for being uncouth, rednecks, and in heat. Hillary ignores the other men in the conjugal cell where he first meets Charlotte, demanding that Charlotte show him her panties and make an obscene face. She consents, and something more than the desired result is achieved. Daniels further mocks Charlotte later on by having her urinate on Jack after he’s stung by a flock of jellyfish—she even goes as far as to ward off other girls who try to whizz on him by screeching, “If anyone’s going to piss on him, it’s going to be me!”

But later, Charlotte’s character is given what she thinks she wants most: a chance to love Hillary. This predictably turns out to be not only not what she wants but also one of many crucial moments where Daniels self-seriously asserts that his film isn’t just, ahem, taking a piss with its characters. Late in the film, Charlotte reluctantly allows herself to be abused by Hillary, suggesting that Daniels thinks he’s meeting his film’s source material at its low-brow level, hence appropriately sending it up whenever necessary.

However, Daniels isn't Paul Verhoeven, and The Paperboy isn't high kitsch, just pompous, condescending trash. Even Verhoeven wouldn’t be brazen enough to ask his viewers to take seriously the unrequited romance between Anita and Jack, a tepid inter-racial romance that never becomes much more than a bathetic subplot. The two actors have no chemistry, fitting for a charmless, schizoid film like this. The best that can be said of The Paperboy is that it’s sometimes intentionally awful. More often than not, however, it’s just awful.

Simon Abrams is a New York-based freelance arts critic. His film reviews and features have been featured in The Village Voice, Time Out New York, Slant Magazine, The L Magazine, The New York Press and Time Out Chicago. He currently writes TV criticism for The Onion AV Club and is a contributing writer at the Comics Journal. His writings on film are collected at the blog, Extended Cut.

SIMON SAYS: Productive Awfulness, or: THE RAVEN Opens This Week

SIMON SAYS: Productive Awfulness, or: THE RAVEN Opens This Week


About every month or so, Steve Carlson and I co-host a movie-themed podcast called the Bad Idea Podcast. The podcast’s main conceit, in short: Steve and I are cinephile dumpster divers. We either watch a collection of bad movies or a selection of movies united by a stupid theme (example: movies featuring killer trees in time for the release of Terence Malick's Tree of Life). We do this, as Steve often says, because we're looking for "buried treasure," or, more importantly, a reason "to justify these films' existence."

Fun as this is, I still often wonder if there is such a thing as a productively awful film. We don't think of the films we watch as immediately satisfying but not especially hardy cine-junk food, any more than Solaris is a, uh, cultural vegetable (to be clear: I love Stalker, Solaris and Ivan's Childhood and am fascinated by The Mirror and The Sacrifice, too). So the issue of whether or not there is such a thing as a guilty pleasure film is only tangentially related to our goal for the podcast. Steve and I both acknowledge that we often highlight fundamentally rotten movies, and that, yes, there's something odd about going out of your way to look for the sublime in the awful. But just because a movie is strange does not always mean it's interesting, as we saw during the month when we watched a swath of E.T. ripoffs from around the world. (We watched a German period porno starring a girl in a very bad and very revealing E.T. costume. That was a rough watch.). The kind of film we’re looking for is something that can give us an experience like the one we had while watching Black Devil Doll from Hell, a title we watched for our month dedicated to killer puppets. Black Devil Doll from Hell is insane but it’s insane in a weird, sui generis, avant-garde-meets-blaxtaploitation kind of way. It’s weird in ways that made both Steve and I want to rewind and compare a scene where a woman, while showering, is psychically raped by a sentient puppet to Chris Marker's ground-breaking use of photo-montage in La Jetee. Black Devil Doll from Hell is our kind of movie.

So, it's with little guilt that I express my interest in The Raven, a new thriller in which Edgar Allan Poe runs around trying to catch a serial killer whose murders are all based on gruesome scenes from Poe's stories. The Raven might very well be just a garden variety turd. The plot looks pretty formulaic, and John Cusack looks seriously miscast as Poe (sorry, but Say Anything’s Lloyd Dobler just doesn't have that kind of acting range). But: James McTeigue is directing, which leaves me simultaneously excited and confused.

McTeigue is most well-known as the director of the recent glossy but approachable and not altogether unintelligent adaptation of V for Vendetta. Though that would normally be enough to make me interested, that's not why I'm curious about The Raven. McTeigue also served as 2nd Assistant Director on a number of other Wachowski siblings' related projects: McTeigue worked with the Wachowskis on the Matrix movies, as well as on Speed Racer, as the second unit director. Directing under the influence of the Wachowskis, filmmakers who know how to shoot characters in motion, is not McTeigue’s problem. It's also not really why I'm interested. The single reason for my interest in The Raven is this: McTeigue's last film, the memorably tacky Ninja Assassin.

Ninja Assassin hails from a long tradition of awful movies about ninjas made by white guys. Enter the Ninja, Ninja Terminator, Revenge of the Ninja–all of these films were directed by white guys, and all of them happily exploited the near-mythic image of Nippon's own brutal, stealthy black pajama-clad killers in better Japanese movies (such as Samurai Spy or any of the Lone Wolf and Cub movies). Co-scripted by Matthew Sand and Babylon 5 creator J. Michael Straczynski, Ninja Assassin is pure ninjasploitation. Every narrative cliche is deployed, from the doomed love subplot that teaches Raizo (Korean pop star Rain), our stoic ninja hero, to the domineering but heartless father figure who meaninglessly and firmly urges Raizo to "always remember who you are." The film's action scenes suck because they rely heavily on fountains of computer-generated blood, murky shadows, and goofy action poses to achieve a fairly meager effect. Ninja Assassin's cookie cutter plot has no heart, and its ostentatiously elaborate set pieces have no style. Ninja Assassin is not a diamond in the rough—it's just rough. So why can't I look away?

Something about the expertly executed superficial rotten-ness of his last film gives me hope that with his new movie, McTeigue has taken his propensity for dimwitted melodrama and done something truly flabbergasting. I want to see John Cusack twirl his mustache, drink heavily, and then, who knows, hallucinate that he is a serial killer, or even end up chasing a man-sized blackbird in a trenchcoat. I want to see John Cusack give us a top ten list of pathological clues that point toward the real killer, with a literal bullet punctuating the end of his list. I want to see Edgar Allan Poe get drunk in order to solve crime, just as Jackie Chan’s character gets inebriated in order to fight in the Drunken Master movies. In other words: I want to believe that McTeigue will use the mandate that his big budget and cluelessness as a storyteller have naturally bestowed upon him to make the best damn bad, tasteless movie he can. He has financial power at his fingertips that many other incompetent and flamboyant filmmakers only dream of. I sincerely hope he uses it in a productively awful way.  Because when you watch a fantastically bad film, one that makes you feel like you’re hallucinating while watching it, you’re disarmed. You're reacting purely, without hesitation or rationale. Whatever it is you’re feeling when you watch a spectacularly bad movie, it’s from the gut, and it's icky, and it's strange, and it has to be reckoned with. I want The Raven to be that bad.

Simon Abrams is a New York-based freelance arts critic. His film reviews and features have been featured in the Village Voice, Time Out New York, Slant Magazine, The L Magazine, New York Press and Time Out Chicago. He currently writes TV criticism for The Onion AV Club and is a contributing writer at the Comics Journal. His writings on film are collected at the blog, Extended Cut.