If it didn’t star John Cusack, James McTeigue’s The Raven, which opened this past weekend, would be a candidate for an original movie on whatever cable channel specializes in medium-grade schlock. McTeigue isn’t a terrible director; a second-unit guy for the Wachowskis, he’s got a decent visual sense and an eye for semi-fantastical imagery. Besides the Matrix movies, he’s done second-unit on a variety of accomplished-looking fantasy pictures (Dark City; Attack of the Clones) and directed V for Vendetta as well as the disappointing Ninja Assassin for his sibling benefactors. The Raven isn’t exactly incompetent: it’s nice to look at, coherently shot, and, in parts, effectively creepy. But it’s also one of those murder mysteries that doesn’t give the audience enough information to solve the crime yet also fails to supply an exciting twist. The idea of Edgar Allan Poe spending his final days assisting with the pursuit of a serial killer taking his inspiration from classic Poe stories is an irresistible hook, at least if you like Poe and pulp, but the movie doesn’t take off from its premise with great invention; it’s more League of Extraordinary Gentlemen the crummy movie than League of Extraordinary Gentlemen the clever comic book.
Cusack, playing Poe, doesn’t necessarily elevate the material, but he does lend it a sense of failed movie-star grandeur. He has fun alternating between Poe’s dire moodiness and, earlier in the film, a playfully louche barely-functional alcoholic haze. On one hand, the desperate, somewhat neurotic, and lovelorn Poe seems to fit Cusack’s brainy, oddball persona; on the other, the role nonetheless places Cusack—gamely, it must be said—into a serial-killer potboiler, albeit a gothic and relatively guilt-free one.
In recent years, Cusack has appeared in movies that tweak his past successes, like the loser reborn via time travel as a romantic nerd-hero in Hot Tub Time Machine, or the sort of alternate-universe Martin Blank in War, Inc. (a “spiritual cousin,” per Cusack, to Grosse Pointe Blank). The Raven depends less on other Cusack texts—I categorize Say Anything, Grosse Pointe Blank, and High Fidelity as his holy trilogy. The Poe thriller is also his first wide-release leading role in awhile (though IMDB lists five near-completed films upcoming for 2012), the latest stop in a career that has sometimes swerved away from the mainstream, only to find itself back on an on-ramp. When Con Air came out in 1997—fifteen years ago next month!—it was treated as a rare mass-appeal action dip from Cusack, who had just come off an oddball pet project, Grosse Pointe Blank. Indeed, Con Air was not the beginning of a Bruckheimer phase for Cusack, but in retrospect, its then-status as an anomaly nonetheless seems strange, though not inaccurate at the time.
Since ’97, Cusack has made some odd and distinctive movies, sometimes good (The Ice Harvest) and sometimes middling (Pushing Tin); he’s also appeared in, by this point, more humdrum romantic comedies that water down his youthful romantic-lead promise than early movies that actually capitalized on it. Cusack doesn’t make much sense as an action hero—his incongruence in Con Air is part of the fun, and would be tricky to repeat—so it’s understandable that he’d return to romantic comedies when he needed to book a studio gig. But pit The Sure Thing and the wonderful Say Anything against the likes of Serendipity, America’s Sweethearts and Must Love Dogs; it might feel a bit like Martin Blank visiting his childhood home in Grosse Pointe to find that it’s been replaced by a mini-mart.
This leaves low-stakes thrillers, seeming refuge for movie stars who want occasional studio paychecks without making balls-out superhero action movies or mugging through a Michael Bay movie. The Raven fits right in line with Cusack’s turns in 1408 (at least impressive as a one-man show) and Identity (a different, far stupider sort of one-man show): the kind of schlock you might expect to star his Con Air costar Nicolas Cage (cue Andy Samberg’s Cage impression on Weekend Update: “HOW am I NOT in this MOVIE?”). But if Cusack’s Poe vaguely resembles the kind of part late-period Cage might glom onto (again, quoting Samberg’s version: “every line is either whispered or screamed”), it’s an even closer match to Cusack and Cage’s now mega-successful contemporary, Johnny Depp. Depp has played the troubled investigator of gothic crimes as both a fictionalized character investigating real-life murders (From Hell) and a fictional-historical character rejiggered as an investigator (Sleepy Hollow), and dabbles in Bruckheimerland with the Pirates of the Caribbean series without playing action roles that could be inhabited by, say, Bruce Willis.
Cusack, Depp, and Cage, different as their acting styles may be, have been on parallel tracks for much of their careers. All three emerged in the mid-80s without direct involvement with the Brat Pack, and somehow managed to avoid starring in any big-money 80s “classics” that turned actors into momentary icons of cheese (props to Tom Cruise, by the way, for getting out of that decade alive). As such, they bridge the gap between the male movie stars of the 70s—serious character actors gone big, like Hackman, Pacino, and De Niro—and the boyish-but-serious handsomeness of Matt Damon and Leonardo DiCaprio (and, on the even starrier, smilier end of things, Will Smith). Cusack and maybe even Cage certainly had their moments of dreaminess as young actors, but they’re twitchier and often softer-spoken than more traditional moviestar counterparts. Depp, of course, has been an extremely attractive guy at any age, but it’s worth noting that he found real superstardom in 2003, hiding under crazy makeup and crazier mannerisms.
What Depp, Cusack, and Cage all seem to strive for, in their ways, is focusing the audience on, for lack of a better word, weirdness; they’re offbeat character actors with movie-star magnetism that disqualifies them from, say, William H. Macy or Bryan Cranston roles. As they age, only Depp has figured out how to channel that weirdness into parts with less emphasis on the charm of a young, handsome, quote-unquote quirky guy—in large part because his success with Disney affords it (Cage’s money woes, meanwhile, afford him quite the opposite). The Raven, then, is most interesting for the sight of Cusack wrestling with his middle-aged masculinity, and chewing some scenery while doing so. Playing a legendary artist like, say, Mark Twain can be read as the ultimate in old-school actorly indulgence; playing a legendary artist in the middle of a semi-grisly gothic murder mystery undercuts that fusty pretension, even if the movie itself isn’t a particularly good semi-grisly gothic murder mystery. Cusack’s Poe isn’t as hilariously cowardly as Depp’s Ichabod Crane or blustery as Cage’s Wicker Man non-cop; in fact, the way that actual investigators invite Poe to help solve the crime, rather than forming any kind of paranoia-fueling antagonism against the writer, is one of the strangest and weakest screenwriting decisions of The Raven. But Cusack serves up some ham at medium-Cage levels. I can only hope both members of Con Air class of ’97 find more movies in sync with their idiosyncrasies as they age, rather than shouldering the burden of aging weirdness themselves.