The 1997 black comedy Grosse Pointe Blank revolves around a fairly straightforward and relate able premise: high school reunions suck. After ten years of something like adulthood, nobody really wants to go back home and defend their life choices to a bunch of people who don’t matter anymore, much less the handful of people who somehow still do. When those life choices happen to be disappearing without a trace on prom night and embarking on a career as a professional hitman, the awkward right of middle-aged passage gets a lot more difficult. Part action flick, part rom com, and part ludicrous slapstick comedy, Grosse Pointe Blank covers a lot of ground while exploring the age old question, can you ever really go home again, and if you can, should you?
Martin Blank (John Cusack) is an assassin for hire. In the middle of his latest job, his assistant Marcella (Joan Cusack) feels it is a good time to read him the invitation to Martin’s ten year high school reunion, which, like any cold blooded killer or normal sane person, he has no intention of attending. However, after rival assassin Grocer (Dan Aykroyd) blows the job and Martin bungles a second mission all on his own, his unhappy clients insist he make things right by making a hit in Detroit. His mischievous assistant insists that he take the job and, while he’s in the neighborhood, swing by the reunion, which just happens to be taking place in the neighboring suburb of Grosse Point. Martin reluctantly agrees, and is blown away when he heads back home to Michigan and finds out just how much has changed in his absence. His childhood home has been torn down and replaced with a convenience store, his mother is living a nursing home, and his high school ex-girlfriend Debbie (Minnie Driver has become a DJ at Radio Free Grosse Pointe. Martin tries to rekindle their relationship, a task that is already complicated by the fact that the couple last saw each other a decade ago, right before Martin stood Debbie up on prom night. When Grocer finds out that he lost the Detroit job to Martin and dispatches a pair of NSA agents (Hank Azaria and K. Todd Freeman) to catch Martin in the act and dispose of the competition, Martin’s work-life balance further complicates the re-budding relationship.
Of course, their relationship is never complicated as it should be. Even by romantic comedy standards, the love story in Grosse Pointe Blank is largely an underdeveloped exercise in fantasy fulfillment. Debbie fires the first shot when Martin comes to the radio station to woo her at work – already a questionable strategy when courting someone who doesn’t work in front of a microphone – where she puts him on the air to publicly berate him before turning the proceedings over to her listeners, who continue piling on the humiliation. It’s an enjoyable bit of wishful thinking that is somewhat undercut by the speed with which Martin wins her back over. Defying all logic and advice from her radio listeners, Debbie agrees to escort Martin to the reunion so quickly that one could imagine her having spent the last decade sitting around waiting for an excuse to forgive him instead of silently brooding like a normal person. By the end of the movie, when Martin’s profession has come to light, he even convinces her that the should look past all the killings and give things another go. The whole thing comes off as a delusional, “love conquers all even when it really shouldn’t” that fantasy that doesn’t so much move you as it persuades you to go along with it.
Still, the oversimplified love story largely works, in part because Cusack and Driver are so charming that it’s hard to bet against them, but mostly because the absurdity of their romance fits perfectly with the absurdity of the film’s premise. This is, after all, a world where Professional Hit Man is pretty much treated like a normal day job. A few years before The Sopranos made criminals going to therapy cool, Martin complains about his work problems to a reluctant shrink (Alan Arkin). Grocer invites Martin to join a fledgling assassin’s union, complete with stock options and collective bargaining. Marcella spends most of her days on the phone with clients and vendors, fighting about terms and incorrect supply orders. Martin himself even casually drops the fact that he kills people for a living to anyone who asks, which everyone just laughs off and moves past as though he’d told them he worked in a bank. This whimsical approach to assassination keeps things light and fun, and sets the stage for romances that are as cartoony as the violence, which is consistently more humorous than intense. Gun fights are completely drowned out by cheap headphones, convenience store explosions are never fully investigated, and Martin conducts serious relationship talks in the middle of high stakes shootouts. Through it all, the film never takes itself too seriously, which is a big part of its continued appeal. It’s dark enough to stand out against your average mid-life crisis rom com, but silly enough to keep you from getting bogged down by troublesome questions about morality.
Verdict: 4 out of 5 Stars
Grosse Pointe Blank is a smart, fun film that honors the crime and romance genres while subtly poking them in the eye. Razor sharp dialogue and a sparkling cast lead by a pair of Cusacks make even the most over-the-top moments feel grounded and engaging. Whether you’re looking for an absurd romcom to take your mind off the absurdity of the world or are so tired of quarantine that even a high school reunion sounds like a good way to see more people, 2020 is the perfect time to revisit this off-kilter comedy.