With the near-simultaneous theatrical premiere of War Inc. (First Look Studios)—a strange, scruffy, black-as-pitch little comedy about the occupation of "Turaqistan"—and the DVD release of Grace Is Gone (the Weinstein Co.)—last year's critically praised but scarcely seen drama about a military widower—John Cusack has entered a curious new phase in his long and unpredictable career: the actor as activist. His is not a Tim Robbins-style activism, clomping solemnly through big-budget issue pictures and dampening the mood at awards ceremonies. Cusack's mode of protest is both subtler and more savage than that. In interviews, he's called the shoestring-budget, shot-in-Bulgaria War Inc. a "punk-rock" anti-war movie. Grace Is Gone, with its minimalist 84-minute running time and exquisitely restrained performances, might be thought of as an emo variation on the same theme.
For most of his 25 years as a movie star (the son of actor Dick Cusack, he was 17 when he appeared in his first film, Class, and had been performing in Chicago's Piven Theatre Workshop for years before that), Cusack's output has tended to fall into one of two categories: romantic comedies that showcase his appeal as a thinking girl's dreamboat (The Sure Thing, Say Anything, High Fidelity) and weird, dark flights of fancy that allow him to serve as the poker-faced traveler in a thoroughly insane world (Tapeheads, Being John Malkovich, The Ice Harvest). His best roles, like Martin Q. Blank, the self-described "morally flexible" hit-man hero of Grosse Pointe Blank, bring these two threads together: Cusack is believable both as the bemused wanderer in a universe of Kafka-esque absurdity and as a total catch for Minnie Driver (one of the few female leads since Ione Skye who's seemed smart enough to be his match).
As an action hero, Cusack is risibly out of place, which is why the scene at the end of Con Air, in which he and Nic Cage chase a fire truck through Las Vegas on hijacked motorcycles, makes for such a good joke. His presence can elevate a clunker to moderate watchability (Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil) or single-handedly turn a standard-issue horror movie into a deeply satisfying chair-clutcher (last year's 1408). Cusack has more than earned his chops as Hollywood's go-to intelligent outsider. But for his loyalists, it was hard not to get worried during the early part of the millennium. What was he doing in Must Love Dogs, a rom-com about Internet romance so edge-free it could have starred Freddie Prinze Jr.? Why was he pining after the terminally boring Kate Beckinsale in the heinous Serendipity? Taking on the title role of Max (2003), a historical fantasy about a one-armed Jewish art dealer who befriends a young painter named Adolf Hitler, was a brave-sounding choice on paper, but neither the movie nor Cusack's role really gelled onscreen. As he entered his late 30s (Cusack will be 42 this year), the erstwhile Lloyd Dobler (or, as I prefer to think of his teen self, Walter Gibson) seemed adrift, ready to focus on something besides getting the girl but unsure what that might be. His description of the inspiration for War Inc. vindicates this impression: "At least I could say, besides voting and being politically active, that I didn't just sit around making romantic comedies."
In his latest incarnation as Brand Hauser, a hit man for a Halliburton-esque military contractor who drinks hot sauce straight to stave off his pangs of conscience, Cusack finds a role he both believes in and inhabits completely. Storywise, War Inc. is a virtual remake of Grosse Pointe Blank set in Iraq, right down to the casting of Cusack's sister Joan as his character's secretary. (Ah, Joan Cusack. So funny, so rubber-faced, so blessedly free of vanity … but that's a whole other assessment.) Tonally, it's a mess, careening between wickedly apt political satire (the embedded journalists in the Emerald City, Turaquistan's fortified zone, get their daily updates by riding a Disneyland-like simulator called "the Implanted Journalist Experience") and maudlin psychologizing (Hauser has become a killer because—cue blurred flashback—Something Awful befell his beloved years ago). But amid the incoherence, the movie keeps trotting out surprises, including a surprisingly sharp turn by Hilary Duff as a sexually precocious Turaqi pop singer named Yonica Babyeah. The script, co-written by Cusack, Jeremy Pikser, and novelist Mark Leyner, is a surreal hodgepodge of Orwellian newspeak and unironic political rage. With any other star, War Inc. might have come off as an earnest but laudable failure, but Cusack's commitment to the project's very weirdness makes its tossed-off, DIY quality feel inspirational.
Writing about Grace Is Gone in the New York Times, Stephen Holden called Cusack "Hollywood's second most reliable nice guy, after Tom Hanks," and while it's indisputable that sheer likeability is essential to both actors' personae, there's something about the comparison that seems off. Maybe it's that Hanks seems so solid, a bastion of family values and Hollywood bona fides, while the never-married, Chicago-based Cusack has a mercurial, off-kilter quality; fast-talking and fidgety, he always appears to be halfway out the door but eager to get in one last point before he goes. I wouldn't be surprised to see Cusack emerge as a writer, and not only of his own screenplays, over the next decade: Look at his astute dissection of George W. Bush as "the young John Wayne … Ethan from The Searchers" in a discussion with Naomi Klein on the Huffington Post (to which he is an occasional contributor). As part of the promotion for War Inc., Cusack was the respondent to this month's back-page "Proust Questionnaire" in Vanity Fair (a difficult-to-navigate exercise in calculated self-disclosure that seems designed to make even the wittiest respondent sound like a fatuous dullard). Asked for his personal motto, Cusack cites a Yugoslavian proverb that might serve as an emblem for his whole career: "Tell the truth and run."