I am very happy to kick off the reviews for the 2nd Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy ACS Fundraiser with this special dedication - Tim H. would like to wish Marty and Melanie a very happy wedding today, with this review of Marty's favorite movie. And so would I.

I have in the past waxed some nostalgic over the miracle that was indie filmmaking in the 1990s, I think in part because I didn't have the good sense to notice it at the time (I was a teenager, and thus deep into my "only foreign films are worth a damn" phase. Ah, kids). But just as miraculous was the way that bled over into the mainstream. For example, if I say "romantic comedy about a hitman resentfully attending his 10-year high school reunion", it feels about right for the whole Miramax indiewood movement of the late '90s. But 1997's Grosse Pointe Blank isn't, technically, an indie film. It's a Hollywood Pictures production. There's Disney money in this thing. And for a Disney movie to dive so lustfully into the offbeat realms of '90s quirky indie comedy... it was a healthier time for mainstream cinema, that's all.

The hitman is one Martin Blank (John Cusack), and his reunion is in Gross Pointe, Michigan, which means that we have no less than a three-way pun going on in the title. That's not the sort of humor that defines the film at all, but it does speak deeply self-amused level of tossed-off snark that does fill every page of the screenplay, adapted by D.V. DeVincentis & Steve Pink & Cusack himself from a draft by Tom Jankiewicz. Since I've already gone all nostalgic, and since the film itself in large part about the unexpected potency of nostalgia, here's another one: Gen-X. Remember when everything in the world for a little was Gen-X thinks/does/is this, or that, or the third thing? Well, Grosse Pointe Blank is a firmly Gen-X-ish movie: it has the deeply self-aware sarcasm born out of an intense desire not to be seen taking anything too seriously. There's an outlandish, fantasyland goofiness built into the scenario that the film sidesteps entirely being treating it with such deadpan remove.

The primary source and primary beneficiary of this bone-dry approach to absurdism and black comedy turns out to be Cusack himself. He's a wildly inconsistent actor, too easily straitjacketed by his characters, but he's always at his best when he's allowed to have a sharp, or nasty, or bleak edge, and he kind of gets all three of them here. When we first see Martin, calmly pausing a conversation with his assistant, Marcella (Joan Cusack) to shoot his latest target, he's already a bit frustrated and annoyed, and over the first third or half of the movie, that frustration blossoms into one of the most interesting, and probably the funniest, Cusack performance I have seen. As he gets wrangled into visiting his hometown during the reunion while taking a job; as he fences with the ebullient older hitman Grocer (Dan Aykroyd), who tries to sell him on the idea of an assassins' union with the loud confidence that older, fatter white men use on younger white men; as he grouses to his disinterested therapist (Alan Arkin); Cusack fills Martin with a savage, angry "why me?" attitude that's half pathetic, half just plain mean. It's appealingly free from any begging for our sympathy, an impressive achievement both for this actor (who's so boyish and innocent-looking that refusing our sympathy can really only come as an act of will), and for the general genre of "likable killers", which usually feels the need to make the lead assassin sensitive in some way, so we can feel good about spending time in his company. Grosse Pointe Blank has no interest in softening Martin's edges. He's scattered and demanding, impatient and petulant. The only thing that ends up keeping him from turning into an antihero - which he certainly doesn't, he's likable throughout and we always root for him - is that the movie as a whole is so sarcastic that it never feels like murder is a high-stakes game.

Making the central character so tetchy also gives the film a unique sensibility as a romantic comedy, particularly a John Cusack romcom. When he reconnects with his old girlfriend, radio DJ Debi Newberry (Minnie Driver), we immediately understand what mixture of standoffishness and neediness combine to make him such a dubious prospect for her. The conflict thus emerges not so much as "will he get the girl?", but rather "will he sufficiently fix himself as a human being to deserve the girl?" Which is, as far as the genre goes, a surprisingly mature attitude, though it doesn't help that it ultimately feels as pre-ordained as in any other romcom.

Still, the movie isn't taking its romantic A-plot any more seriously than it takes anything else. Director George Armitage and his cast glide through everything with a sardonic coolness that's privileges wry humor, deadpan quips, and smirking reaction shots, and while it only works by virtue of being funny, well, it is funny. Not always laugh-out-loud funny. Funny in that peculiarly '90s Gen-X way, where you see ridiculous things going on and shake your head with knowing superiority; but then, the characters here are in on the joke, so it doesn't feel like they or their movie are beneath us.

The side effect of resting so heavily on attitude, humor and a sense of well-honed ironic detachment means that Grosse Pointe Blank is ill-equipped to move in any other direction. It handles the love material well enough, simply because Cusack and Driver are operating on exactly the same level, and the ending hustles along as quick as it can without lingering on anything too potentially sentimental. But I'm not terribly keen on any of the film's shifts into action cinema, which start to pile up in the second half; Armitage (or, at least, his second unit) doesn't have the natural flair to make it actually exciting, and even if he did, I can't find my way to the argument that Grosse Pointe Blank actually benefits from having action setpieces in the first place. A Coenesque outburst of shocking violence, sure. But this isn't that - this is gun battles in exploding mini-marts. The film always quickly reverts to its set position, but these shifts all feel random and disruptive.

That leaves a healthy amount of movie that works pretty consistently on the levels that matter. The ironic humor is funny; the lovingly curated and omnipresent soundtrack of '80s indie rock gives the film an energetic spine and also a warm nostalgic glow; Cusack could not possibly have more perfect timing, and Driver could not be a better foil. The film's strengths are necessarily limited - it's immensely saturated in the kind of hip knowingness that died with the '90s and wasn't even liked by everybody at the time - and the last act suffers from too much drift from its strengths, but on the whole, it's terrifically likable, sly in the most inveigling ways, and puts enough of a spin on the basic romantic comedy tropes it subscribes to feel a bit fresher and intelligent than it probably objectively is. It's a fun little bastard of a movie, and an exceptionally lively time capsule.