Actor John Cusack attends the ‘Chi-Raq’ photo call during the 66th Berlinale International Film Festival on February 16, 2016. taniavolobueva/

First, the bad news. John Cusack’s State Theatre screening of Stephen Frears’ 2000 comedy-drama “High Fidelity” has been canceled at the last minute. 

Now, that’s bad news for fans of the movie and actor (who’d have been in attendance for a Q&A), many of whom are letting their feelings be known at The State’s Facebook page, understandably. (Cusack had already postponed his Portland appearance once before.) It’s also bad news for this columnist, as I’d been equally excited to write about “High Fidelity,” Cusack and my oddly intense connections to both. 

But here we are, with useless tickets in hand (refunds are available at the State Theatre box office) and a seemingly blown deadline for an article I was quite looking forward to writing. But, life goes on. The nastiest commenters on Facebook might consider seeking therapy, while this writer will dutifully steam ahead as if 2024 hadn’t just kicked off with a huge disappointment, entertainment-wise. 

As a malleable teen boy, I gravitated to John Cusack. Sure, everyone quotes the goofy “Better Off Dead” (someone on the Facebook has posted that “I want my two dollars” GIF), and I may have badgered my parents for a brown leather jacket just like the one Cusack’s Walter “Gib” Gibson wore in Rob Reiner’s energetically funny teen rom-com “The Sure Thing” as a high school graduation present. (Desperate as I was to reinvent my gangly teenage self in Cusack’s self-deprecating college freshman image before I stepped foot onto the campus at Bowdoin.) Toss in Cusack’s turn as tragic real-life Chicago White Sox infielder Buck Weaver in John Sayles’ 1988 sports drama “Eight Men Out,” and it’s like his career was designed to tick all my idol-seeking boxes. 

“Say Anything” was the kicker though, Cusack’s restlessly romantic recent high school grad and aspiring kickboxer Lloyd Dobler immediately landing in my own troubled young psyche as the very image of the perfect young American male. Nervous but forthright and as self-possessed about right and wrong as he is desperately insecure about his own worth, Cusack’s Lloyd was a revelation, an indelible performance destined to vault the coltish young actor into the ranks of the A-list. 

And then it never quite happened. He still scored some good lead roles (his work in Frears’ pitch-dark 1990 conman drama “The Grifters” is outstanding), and the politically minded actor continued to lend his star power to indie films in need of a bump. The 1997 hitman romantic comedy “Grosse Point Blank” remains one of the most fully rounded and entertaining films ever, with Cusack’s dangerous but conflicted Martin Blank dodging assassins and feds during his high school reunion with an old flame played by Minnie Driver. And his own reunion with Frears for “High Fidelity” is even better, a hilariously melancholy adaptation (co-written by Cusack) of Nick Hornby’s novel about an aimless 30-something record store owner whose perennial dissatisfaction with life and himself threatens both his long-term relationship with Iben Hjejle’s wise-to-him Laura and his struggling business, Championship Vinyl. 


By the time “High Fidelity” came out, I was a deeply depressed 30-something clerk at Portland’s Videoport, a damned great video store where the march of technology (damn you, streaming) threatened the existence of the only place I felt remotely at home. Like Championship, Videoport was peopled by overeducated enthusiasts of a particular, endangered medium, people whose outsized confidence in their knowledge about Captain Beefheart rarities or the cult films of Baltimore trash auteur John Waters serve as a bulwark against the creeping insecurities about ourselves and our stalled personal lives. (Or maybe that was just me.) 

At Championship Vinyl, one of the favorite, work-dodging pastimes of Cusack’s boss Rob and his two eccentrically fanatical employees (Jack Black as Barry and Todd Louiso as Dick) is “Top 5,” a self-congratulatory game where they bicker endlessly over the best examples of a particular category. (Best side-one/track-ones, best songs about death, etc.) At Videoport, we played Premise, a game where everyone tried to come up with titles for a given fictional film. (Best ever answer, from still-hilarious coworker Jeremy was the 90s-era Woody Allen film, “The Old Man and the C-Minus in Entertainment Weekly.”)

Cusack’s Rob frames his personal life much the same, at one point listing off to the audience the five worst things he’s done during his relationship with Laura, and making a similar list of all the reasons why his five previous serious relationships failed. Rob’s expansive Chicago apartment is crammed with albums in creaking wooden racks, his meticulous care of and obsession with this outdated format displayed as proof that at least he is the master of this one, fading thing as his life spins apart. In every cramped apartment I shared with various romantic partners, I cobbled together tottering wooden shelves packed with carefully alphabetized VHS and then DVD movies, clinging to their prominent display as evidence of the one thing I believed I could hold up as proof of my worth. 

And, like Rob, something of a happy ending emerged from all this obsessiveness, with the wary Laura returning at the end of “High Fidelity” and me finding the person who could appreciate (and share) my movie mania with all its fetishized psychology as I put up a room full of built-in DVD shelves in the house we eventually bought together. (Oh, I met her at Videoport, naturally, and call our permanent in-house video store Dennis and Emily’s Video Palace.)

All of this is a long road to say that we love the things we love for the reasons we love them. I hooked onto movies as a child and John Cusack, the stammering, good-hearted romantic, as a teen. I’ve made a career writing about movies that lurches along in the fits and starts of a scrabbling freelancer. Cusack’s made a late career out of mainly direct-to-streaming action flicks, of all things, with him often being the only known name above the title. (As of last week, it was unclear what “filming commitments” caused the Portland cancellation, but upcoming low-budget Cusack action projects include “Fog of War” and “My Only Sunshine.”)

And yet. Sometimes I can look back through all the dashed and abandoned plans and shattered idolatry and remember the purity with which I loved (and can still love) Cusack’s work in “Say Anything,” “The Grifters,” “Grosse Point Blank,” “Eight Men Out” and 2005’s perpetually overlooked, Harold Ramis-directed black comedy “The Ice Harvest,” among others. The guy spoke to the young me, and then the aging me, and I’m still with him as his career settles into the unexpected rut of a small-screens action guy. (He is pretty great alongside fellow flounderer Thomas Jane in 2014’s rambunctiously zippy “Drive Hard.”) 

And I can, sometimes, recognize that what I’ve written isn’t half-bad, and admit that even though you don’t always end up where you thought, there’s still something to be proud of in stepping up to the plate and taking your swings. Sorry to have missed you, Johnny C. Maybe next time. 

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