A killer

Grosse Pointe Blank aims high and hits its target

The high school reunion is supposed to be a kind of validation for Martin, but it turns out all wrong. He may look trim in his usual jet-black duds, but most of his classmates are frazzled and bleary. Armitage captures the depresso-raucousness of a class reunion better than anyone since Jonathan Demme in Something Wild.

Martin's secretary has already warned him what it would be like. Referring to her own 10th reunion, she recalls that it was "just as if everyone had swelled"--and that's precisely the way everybody looks in Grosse Pointe. Martin is so much slicker and better formed than his old classmates and neighbors, it's as if he were standing up for the bad life. Murdering people for a living has been good for his looks.

But of course Martin feels separated from his looks. That's one reason he's back in Grosse Pointe--he's having an identity crisis, and he wants to feel good about who he was. (One of his most pleasant moments comes when he checks out his old high school locker and finds a 10-year-old joint stowed away in the corner.)

But the filmmakers don't push this crisis stuff much, and it's just as well. When we see Martin checking up on his addled mother (Barbara Harris) in a nursing home or pouring a bottle of booze on his father's grave, we're supposed to feel sorry for him and think that maybe his parents made him what he is. It's all too conventional a crock for such a weird movie. What's funny--and unsettling--about Martin is his unknowableness: The more you try to explain him away, the less interesting he becomes.

There's a funny moment in Grosse Pointe Blank when a convenience-store clerk is so busy playing a shoot-'em-up video game he fails to notice the real-life shootout going on around him. That sequence is typical of the entire movie because it mixes fake gore with real bullets. Everything is kept in a kind of cartoon suspension where nothing seems to be taking place quite for real. It's an extension of the exploitation-film methods Armitage used in the films he ground out for Roger Corman in the '70s, but with a spooky new tone of dissociation.

That tone was also present in Armitage's previous film, Miami Blues, adapted from a Charles Willeford thriller, which was knocked by its detractors for not having a point of view. What bothered people, I think, was that Armitage wasn't getting all huffy and moralistic about the amorality on the screen. He doesn't get huffy in Grosse Pointe Blank either. He's a filmmaker bemused by his own alienation. Armitage has Martin shoot out a poster of Pulp Fiction at one point, and the moment is symbolic. Whereas Tarantino's crime thrillers are full of "attitude" and self-referential pop sloganeering, Armitage's way is more relaxed and distanced. You can't even call Grosse Pointe Blank a black comedy, because that would imply an engagement with its terrors that Armitage avoids.

The naysayers about Miami Blues were right, but they were also wrong. The same holds true for Grosse Pointe Blank: It doesn't have a point of view. That's what's exciting and original about it. It's a killing comedy for people who have learned to stop worrying and love their identity crisis.

Grosse Pointe Blank.
John Cusack, Minnie Driver, Alan Arkin, Dan Aykroyd, Hank Azaria. Written by Cusack, Tom Jankiewicz, D.V. DeVincentis, Steve Pink. Directed by George Armitage. Opens Friday.

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