Me and Dick and John Cusack

This was supposed to be a piece about a character named “Dick” and how most of us—chiefly me—are more like him than we are like a John Cusack character.

Unfortunately, this piece isn’t even remotely about Dick—it’s about John Cusack and me … but mostly me.

I was 11 years old the first time I saw a John Cusack movie.

The year was 1986. And, since I’d only been to half-a-dozen theater releases in my life, and this not being E.T. or Empire Strikes Back or Return of the Jedi or Clash of the Titans (original) or 101 Dalmatians or Tim Burton’s Batman, I had to wait to see Better Off Dead until it came to HBO.

I was an immediate fan.

Sure the movie was funny and poignant but, more than that, it featured John Cusack—Mr. 1980s. Maybe it’s the nostalgia talking (though more likely it’s the Phillips Union Cherry Bourbon) but despite whatever unpleasant circumstances may have surrounded my white trash upbringing, the ’80s were a fine fucking time.

I played my first Atari 2600 … and then 7800 in the ’80s.

I got my first GI Joe action figure in the 1980s. I saw the first pair of titties that made me want to run away from home and join whatever it was one joined to see more titties like those—they were Brigitte Nielsen’s, by the way. She was featured in Playboy’s 35th Anniversary issue as one of their Women of the ’80s.

And, even though this late-late bloomer hadn’t yet discovered the joys of solitaire at the time, her image was a mighty pleasing one.

That decade held other delights. I shot my first gun in the 1980s: a single-pump, Daisy Air Rifle in the style of a brush gun.

I watched my first episode of Seinfeld in the 1980s. I hated it, but I would eventually go on to love the show after refusing to watch most of the first couple seasons. (Because I am a stubborn ass!)

Anyways, back to JC—no, not the dude with the sandals and the fish and all the single man “friends.”

Way back then, I wanted to be John Cusack. My whole life I have. Still do.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to be John Cusack the actor, I want to be John Cusack the quirky, funny, intelligent, perennially nice character he always plays.

For gewgaws’ sake, he was even funny and quirky and nice when he played a hit man in Grosse Pointe Blank.

Anyways, fast-forward a few decades and it’s been a while since I’ve experienced the Cusackion wit and wonder.

I was watching Cusack’s 2000 film High Fidelity during morning coffee this past week in pieces over the course of a few days.

Immediately, I found myself digging his usual conversational, totally laid-back approach to life when I noticed something I hadn’t noticed before.

Maybe it had always been there. At least, it could have always been there in movies where he played that character. You know the one … the angsty loser who can’t seem to figure out why love won’t avail itself, why people do the pointless and painful shit they do, why nobody else seems to notice how fucked up everything is.

I like his character Rob Gordon in High Fidelity for the same reason I liked his characters in The Sure Thing and One Crazy Summer, and not just because he was my 1980s hero.

For starters, he’s smart and introspective, and well-read, in that white trash philosopher style I so terribly dig. And, he talks to the camera. That’s a big plus. John Cusack is one of few who can break the fourth wall with impunity. Mad impunity. (What a name for an early 2000s alternative band “Mad Impunity.”)

Let’s see Sir Anthony Hopkins or Meryl Streep try that shit—breaking the fourth wall, not starting an alt-rock band.

Anyways, I dig the movie, right? But I can’t help feeling somehow disconnected because of that thing I noticed a few paragraphs back.

Is it that he owns a record store?

Is it that he’s had way more serious relationships than me?

Is it because he’s less of an asshole than I am? I mean, he’s quirky and cool and unpretentious.

I’m quirky and cool and unpretentious.

Or is he?

Or am I?

That’s it. I figured out what’s striking me all wrong.

Or have I?

It’s when the middle-aged dude comes in looking for a Stevie Wonder album for his daughter.

“I Just Called To Say I Love You.” (Have you ever just called to say you love her? Gah! You don’t deserve her, you pig!)

It’s a great song. But, not according to Jack Black, who is apparently playing himself in the movie. He calls it, “sentimental tacky crap.”

And, even though JC’s character admonishes JB’s character for dumping on the customer and his choice in tunes, there are later scenes which show that John Cusack’s character is every bit as uppity about his music.

“I didn’t know it was pick on the middle-aged square guy day.”

In one scene, a customer asks for a certain album and is refused service because he is a “geek.”

Then, one apparent pal of Cusack’s record shop—the store ironically named “Champion Vinyl”—buys the album while calling the fellas out for their behavior.

“You’re totally elitist,” the pal says. “You feel like the unappreciated scholars so you shit on the people who know less than you.”

That’s what got me. The whole “you must be this obnoxious/arrogant/elitist to buy this record” vibe. Not to mention the utter obtuseness his character exhibits when it comes to the truth about why all his relationships with women fail.

As if you can only love music if you have all the Galactic Sherpas CDs or can name all the members of The Breeders (it’s way too fucking complicated to get into here. All you need to know is the band was founded by Pixies bassist Kim Deal.)

This idea that listening to one kind of music makes you cool and a “true” fan, while listening to certain other tunes makes you a hipster or a dork … that really bugged me.

I mean, I genuinely love The Talking Heads. The Fear of Music album is my absolute favorite of theirs. Does that make me a hipster or a poser? (The fact that I own the re-release on vinyl should have no effect on your answer.)

And, yes, it does sound better on vinyl. (So maybe I’m a little snobby and pretentious. But it fucking does sound better!)

Anyways, I still enjoy this and most of his flicks.

John Cusack? Right? Right! We’re still talking about John Cusack. He’s great. Even if the subterranean cannibalistic toadstool dwellers over at Film-School-Rejects-dot-motherfuckin’-com decided to take a big hairy shit all over his filmography.

Read at your own risk: http://filmschoolrejects.com/features/john-cusack-went-wrong.php

Bit of a non sequitur coming up. (Who, me? Couldn’t be!)

One thing I noticed about John Cusack in High Fidelity is how much he smokes. I used to smoke that much. Then, one day, my lungs couldn’t handle it any more and I had to quit. I miss my smoky little darlings. But, I do enjoy breathing. (Little known fact: smoking does make you look cool. Regardless of what the hens over at thetruth.com say.) Point is, I didn’t quit because it’s trendy to quit. I quit so I could breathe.

Nonetheless, I have to deduct a few Cusack points from my scorecard. Did I mention I was scoring my life to see how Cusack-like I’ve become over the years? Maybe I need to get a life.

Maybe I need to lay off the Phillips Union.

Maybe you need to mind your goddamn business. Yeah, I’m talking to you over there in the corner.

You know, the funny thing is, before I started writing notes for this piece, I had intended it to be all about the character Dick, played by Todd Louiso. (I may have mentioned that in some labored wordplay way back in Munchkin City.)

But, in true Cusack character fashion, I started talking to the camera about my own shitty little problems and have seen fit to make this all about me.

What was my point?

Oh yeah, trying to figure out how close I’ve come to becoming like my childhood idol John Cusack. (God, I miss the ’80s.)

Well, I don’t have a tenacious paperboy stalking me for his “two dollars!” (Why the fuck is John Cusack responsible for paying the paperboy?)

Another non sequitur: I just now noticed that John Cusack’s character’s father in Better Off Dead is played by the same guy who played Charles Emerson Winchester III in MASH. Nice!

Anyways, I do tend to break the fourth wall of my life on a fairly regular basis.

Though, instead of talking to a camera, I talk to myself. Not in that psychotic delusional fantasy sort of way. Sometimes it’s just easier to work out a story idea or a joke I’m working on by saying it aloud. (Hecks, the great Garrison Keillor was once quoted as saying the greatest horseshit detector in writing is to read it aloud.)

One of the things that bothered me most in High Fidelity is how he treats his employees, whom he sees as inferior and annoying.

The ironic aspect is that, without them, he wouldn’t have any friends at all. I can really relate to that. I’ve complained about a few people in my life at different points but, if it wasn’t for them, I would have been even more isolated than I was … am … was … what was the question? (Being an obtuse asshole definitely qualifies me for more Cusack points.)

Another thing we have in common—sort of—is that we both own a small business. JC owns a record store. I co-own a small publishing company.

And, while I don’t like the way he treats his employees, I have to admit that I am not the easiest person to work for.

Over my years in business, in publishing and other industries, I’ve had to fire friends, extended family, and immediate family for not performing to my standards.

I think it’s safe to say a guy who fires his own family members is a bit of a prick.

So, I guess I can add a couple more Cusack points. Even though he didn’t fire any of his employees.

Maybe that means I have to deduct points. I’m so confused.

Remember, I’m not comparing myself to John Cusack but to some of his characters.

I guess you could say I’m comparing the character I play with some of the characters he plays. You know, the world’s a stage and all that bullshit.

Now that I think of it, I’m more like the fat guy in Teen Wolf, who also played Pee Wee Herman’s arch nemesis in Pee Wee’s Big Adventure. (Apparently, his name is Mark Holton.)

Where was I?

Oh yeah, examining my occasional insensitivity to others. And, lamenting that I was not cast in Teen Wolf. (The original, not that godawful MTV remake.)

Sorry, teenyboppers, all your culture is just regurgitated from the ’80s. Nothing original about it or you. (Showed them!)

And, because JC and me are so focused on ourselves, we’ll never understand what makes a lesser character like Dick tick. (Note: “Dick tick” is worst possible genital ailment.)

I get it—it’s just a story. We cannot focus on everyone, so we tend to focus on no one but ourselves. (Been guilty of that, too.)

Doesn’t Dick matter? Is he really just peripheral, a nonentity in the grander High Fidelity?

Do the Dicks of the world know they are just cardboard cutouts on someone else’s set?

I mean, sure, we’re all just scenery in someone else’s life but are the Dicks of the world even more so … or are they really the stars of their own little story? And we Cusack types just don’t realize it because we’re too busy commiserating with the camera?

Who the fuck are me and John Cusack to just trample the seemingly nameless in our quest for relief and relevance?

But we do it.

Me and Rob Gordon, we think we’re smarter and cooler and quirkier and more deserving.

I can’t tell you how many Dicks I’ve trampled in my 40-and-a-half years.

On the other hand, how much time should I devote to Dick? Really. Isn’t it just as arrogant to assume he needs my help or wants my attention?

I can barely get my own shit together … and suddenly I am confronted by the realization that I am Dick. I’m at least as much Dick as I am Rob Gordon, and twice as much Dick as John Cusack.

(How would you express that in an algebraic formula? Cusack=Dick/Gordon?)

It’s one thing to be a middle-class “loser” like in One Crazy Summer or Better Off Dead … but to be a real loser? To be a Dick? Woof!

The truth is, I’m nowhere near a Cusack character.

I was never cool enough to draw cartoons of girls I liked while on vacation in some snazzy resort town, or to show up at a girl’s house with a boombox over my head.

I’ve always looked at the cool kids with their hip careers in finance and modeling, their luxurious vacations to Toledo, and their tan lines, and slim bellies and fucking GPS navigational systems, and I think about how badly I wanted to be them.

But I’m not them. I’ll never be them.

GPS frightens me.

My slim belly is covered by a much fatter belly.

Toledo sounds too much like “taquito.”

Besides, I can’t compete with the John Cusack model of “loser” because he is just too cool.

Cusack is a loser like da Vinci was a loser, like Hunter S. Thompson was a loser, like Edgar Allen Poe was a loser, like Tom Waits is a loser.

On the fringe? Sure. Not-so-mainstream? You betcha! But a real loser loser? Nah.

I’m a loser like lime Jell-O or Charlie Brown. Think about it, if Chuck were real, he wouldn’t have any friends. Cripe, the ones he does have are either nuts or narcissistic or mentally ill or filthy or just plain abusive.

All my friends fall into the same categories as Chuck’s.

After a little introspection and a lot of Phillips Union, it seems that I don’t know dick about being John Cusack.

But, I do know a little about being Dick—and maybe a little Dick is good enough.

Join us next time (that’s me and cherry bourbon) when I explain why the Paul Rodriguez movie A Million To Juan is the best feelgood movie ever made.

Ever. Made. As the kids would say.

By the way, I figure I collected 83 Cusack Points, which isn’t nearly enough to get the stuffed gorilla in the Bermuda shorts. (Don’t ask about the math, it involves the original members of The Breeders.)

Consider visiting again when me and a bottle of whiskey finger-bang the ’80s in a haze of nostalgia and regret.

Yours truly, Ben Cusack