John Cusack is no Brad Pitt. He’s got an oval head, a thorny nose, a maw like a coin slot and eyes that seem to disappear when he squints. His face is one of a kind, to be sure, but he’s nobody’s idea of a hunk.
And yet throughout the trite new romantic comedy Must Love Dogs, females repeatedly — almost mechanically — tout his character’s cuteness, which only proves the extent to which the Cult of Cusack informs our culture. Even screenwriters have bought into it.
The truth is Brad Pitt wishes he were John Cusack. For women of a certain age — maybe between 25 and 45 — Cusack is the ideal male. It’s not the image of perfection perpetuated in hip-hop videos or, say, a Brad Pitt movie, but rather a figure a teen girl might rhapsodize about in her diary.
In Must Love Dogs, Cusack plays Jake Anderson, a boat builder coping with a recent divorce. His life takes a turn when he answers an online dating ad by a fetching woman named Sarah (Diane Lane); the only trouble is she’s an avowed dog lover. Jake borrows a canine for their first encounter, only to discover that she, too, is a new divorcée and that she, too, hired a dog for the occasion. (She added that detail to her Internet profile at her sister’s behest.) This is only the first in a series of inane romantic mix-ups. There’s little to recommend this formulaic “comedy,” other than Jake, the latest iteration of an archetype that has enthralled many women for nearly two decades.
That’s not to discount latter-day Cusack fans — those women who may have been won over by his clever performances in Grosse Pointe Blank or High Fidelity. The chronology is moot, because those later characters are all (slight) variations on Dobler.
Women love Dobler/Cusack because of his boyish charm and incurable idealism; he’s the perpetual underdog. The Cusack quasi-hero is not governed by his groin, but by principles like integrity and authenticity. (Though he does occasionally heed his groin.) His hobbies and/or jobs generally revolve around preoccupations that are obsessive, unprofitable and ultimately quixotic. In Say Anything…, it was kickboxing; in Being John Malkovich, puppeteering; in High Fidelity, he owned a record store (in addition to an ungodly amount of personal vinyl).
In Must Love Dogs, he designs and builds highly ornate wooden canoes that he will only sell to people who can fully appreciate their craftsmanship. Anderson’s impasse has echoes of that famous Dobler soliloquy: “I don’t want to sell anything, buy anything or process anything as a career. I don’t want to sell anything bought or processed, or buy anything sold or processed, or… process anything sold, bought… or processed, or repair anything sold, bought or processed, you know, as a career. I don’t want to do that.” Like Lloyd Dobler, Jake Anderson is a man who clearly wasn’t cut out for capitalism. In a world that glorifies profit, Cusack’s characters strive for something less materialistic: sincerity. Women find that irresistible.
Yet despite his moony romanticism, the typical Cusack character is, at heart, a wise ass — and if we’ve learned one thing from Cosmopolitan (and only one thing), it’s that a keen humour makes a man tremendously attractive. Dobler/Cusack is smart without being haughty, self-deprecating without being depressive. More than anything, he’s a thinker, a ruminator; he’s a man who develops “theories” (usually about love). Rob Gordon, Cusack’s character in High Fidelity, took great pains to enumerate the reasons his various relationships unravelled. In Must Love Dogs, Jake’s prevailing theory is that every woman has a script for the perfect love, and any suitor who diverges will be kicked to the curb.
It’s not that Cusack is entirely without “range.” His depiction of a con man in The Grifters (1989) was nervy and convincing; in Max (2002), his portrayal of a Jewish art dealer who tries to nurture a young painter named Adolf Hitler was marvellously poised. The man can act, when he chooses to.
But why stretch out when your most cherished role comes so easily? Cusack’s geniality is such that he makes even dubious characters likeable. It’s what enables us to root for Martin Blank (Grosse Point Blank) despite the fact that he’s a trained assassin, or support Rob Gordon’s search for true love despite the fact that he’s a narcissistic yob. Cusack’s characters achieve redemption through self-deprecation.
And while he makes women swoon, Cusack is also well liked by male viewers. It’s partly because of his snappy wit, but also his batting average — for all his tortured self-analysis, when has Cusack not gotten the girl?
In recent years, this unlikely sex symbol has taken on a doughier appearance, but at 39, he shows no sign of having frustrated his fan base. His unflappable charm is enough to compel moviegoers to stick out a blight like Must Love Dogs (assuming his mere presence was enough to impel them to buy a ticket in the first place). Cusack’s deviations into more serious thespian fare only prove that he’s most at home playing himself. And there are millions of women who couldn’t ask for more.