Love's Labors: 'The Raven' & 'The Five-Year Engagement'

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Few popular, mainstream actors have had as erratic a career as John Cusack, who has gone from darkly sardonic teen icon to romantic comedy leading man to action hero to whatever Martian Child was. He's done plenty of respectable fare (High Fidelity, Cradle Will Rock, Being John Malkovich — all 1999-2000, incidentally) but the past decade of his resumé is positively littered with genre schlock; action, horror, whatever. Perhaps the only current movie star to have had an even stranger career than John Cusack is one Mr. Nicolas Cage, that great grandstanding over-actor (and Cusack's costar in Con Air) of delightful infamy. So it's fitting then, feels almost like meta completion, that in his new film The Raven, Cusack seems to be channeling Nic Cage at every turn.

Like Cusack's recent career in miniature, The Raven is tonally scattered, veering from comedy to Gothic horror to something approaching literary drama at various points throughout the film. Consistent the whole way, however, is Cusack's thoroughly ridiculous performance, a weird melange of bad accent and worse hair, of affected actorliness that, like Cage's more disastrous work, doesn't contain quite enough of a wink to let the audience know that he's in on the mess. He might actually be buying his own madness. In the film, Cusack plays a drunken, penniless Edgar Allan Poe, who flaneurs and stumbles around 19th century Baltimore loudly extolling the virtues of his own writing and wooing a young lady of society (the comically named Alice Eve) while enraging her blustering father (Brendan Gleeson). There's the sense that Cusack is maybe trying to create some sort of irreverent, modern-but-still-period iconic character here, in the vein of Depp's Jack Sparrow or Downey Jr.'s Sherlock. The character has no franchise potential, as the film opens with an epilogue-as-prologue about Poe's death, but maybe Cusack and his director, V for Vendetta's James McTeigue, were still hoping for that same kind of pithy, indelible hero. But instead what they end up with in this grim and silly picture is a font of tics and babbled nonsense — it's much more Ghost Rider than Game of Shadows. Cusack, who has always had drooping hangdog eyes, looks even more tired than usual here. His skin is pallid and sickly and his voice sounds thick and stale. He's unpleasant to behold, which is a problem considering he is, of course, the star.

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The plot of the film is one of those gimmicky pseudo-literary setups that Tom Stoppard could actually write well were he willing to stoop so low, but in the hands of lesser writers, in this case Ben Livingston and (another hilarious name!) Hannah Shakespeare, become tedious and strain credibility after the first neat trick is pulled off. See it seems that some nefarious figure in Baltimore is committing elaborate murders in exactly the same styles depicted in Poe's gory short stories. There's The Pit and the Pendulum, The Murders in the Rue Morgue, and The Cask of Amontillado, with other references scaterred throughout. Poe is quickly cleared as a suspect, but he is nonetheless a crucial part of the killer's motive, so he takes up with the investigation with a square and dogged inspector (the Orlando Bloom/Michael Fassbender hybrid Luke Evans) and the game is afoot. Oh, and, lest you think the matter not personal enough, Poe's lady love is kidnapped and buried alive, Poe given tantalizing clues as to her whereabouts. It's at this point that Cusack's Poe gains a focus and a serious darkness that was not evident in the oddly whimsical (despite all the gore) beginning stretches of the film. And it's there that the film becomes an increasingly incoherent bore.

The literary copycat conceit is jettisoned rather quickly and soon we are in reckless cat-and-mouse mode. And while the film is at times scarily atmospheric — a hunt in the cramped sewers under Baltimore, a horse chase through a foggy wood — it too often abandons the stony, old-timey horror that should be its main motif, because despite all the nonsense it works, in favor of slow-motion bullets and a super villain-esque masked crusader who is capable of impossible feats of speed and marksmanship. If The Raven would only settle down a little, take in all the atmosphere it's created rather than rush through it on the way to the next thrill, there could have been something interesting here, a period version of Copycat, the terrific little thriller from 1995 about a killer who recreates famous serial murders of the past. Instead it overloads on silly, perhaps hoping to appeal to the impatient teenage boys out there who supposedly dominate movie theaters every weekend. It's a shame.

It's a nifty idea, to explain the mysterious circumstances of Poe's death (yes, "Reynolds" makes it in there, of course), but The Raven doesn't trust itself enough to carry the smart thinking beyond that initial idea. It lazily gives up, which is a shame in its own right but is a downright crime when you consider that there's Cusack out there, putting himself on the line with all of his morose bellowing and other scenery chewing endeavors. The movie should be a lot smarter or weirder or something in order to better accommodate the stupid thing that Cusack is doing so thoroughly in this film. Instead it seems too small for him, or simply not the right fit.

It's no wonder that both Cusack and Cage have done some of the best, if not the best, work of their careers in Charlie Kaufman/Spike Jonze movies. Those are big, heady landscapes of imagination that render any actor's flailing relatively human-sized in comparison. In the interest of stopping all the Cage mocking, and heading off the inevitable Cusack teasing, let's get the two of them back working with Kaufman and Jonze. Because I don't want to see Cusack going to waste in something like this ever again. Seriously. Nevermore.


On the lighter side of things we have the sunny and effortlessly enjoyable romantic comedy The Five-Year Engagement, the latest collaboration from director Nicholas Stoller and his Forgetting Sarah Marshall star Jason Segel (they wrote the script together). The guys wisely bring in the effervescently likable Emily Blunt as Segel's costar and then fill out the cast with an eclectic stable of comedic actors. It's a bouncy, sweet good time that's also pretty darn smart.

Segel plays Tom, a San Francisco sous chef who at the beginning of the film proposes to Violet, a psychology grad student looking to do a postdoc at UC Berkeley. She says yes and, though they hit a few snags planning their wedding, unavailable venues and whatnot, things are going well. They're a good couple, easygoing and supportive, and it's because of that decency to one another that Tom genially agrees, after hardly any thought, to move to Ann Arbor -- putting his culinary career on indefinite hold -- when Violet is offered a job at U Mich. They'll just put the wedding off for a bit until they get settled and then life will get back on course. So, they leave sunny California (is San Francisco really ever that sunny?) and head to wintry Michigan, where Violet immediately falls in with her psych crew, professor (Rhys Iffans) and fellow assistants (Mindy Kaling, Kevin Hart) alike. Meanwhile, Tom is unable to find a decent cooking job in the relatively un-foodie Midwest, and is quietly reeling from the fact that his old boss back in San Francisco had been about to make him the head chef at her new, now wildly successful restaurant. Resentment is building beneath the happy exterior, manifested outwardly as a continuing postponement of the wedding. To make matters worse, the couple's overly long engagement is thrown into even starker relief when Tom's dopey friend Alex (Chris Pratt, doing Chris Pratt) and Violet's sister Suzie (Alison Brie, doing a shaky British accent), who hooked up at Tom and Violet's engagement party, get pregnant and married in a mere matter of months. How frustrating!

The rest of the film deals with Tom and Violet dealing with these frustrations — professional, personal, everything in between — in ways both silly and strangely smart and sincere. There's a naked, drunken stumble through woods and Violet suffers a few painful slapstick moments, but there are also long scenes of dialogue while the couple gently argues in bed, moments of domesticity that feel quite real despite the glossy romcom surroundings. Stoller and Segel have learned this blending technique well from their old mutual boss Judd Apatow (who, actually, as a producer on this is still their boss), and it plays out really winningly here. They also give Blunt plenty to do, which is a refreshing change of pace from the appealing but mostly shallow material Mila Kunis was given in Sarah Marshall. And the supporting cast — which includes Chris Parnell, Brian Posehn, and Dakota Johnson (daughter of Don and Melanie!) — is well-curated and well-used. Even the parents get some funny bits, especially Mimi Kennedy, who, playing Tom's mother, does a fabulous and biting drunk-at-brunch routine.

The film is a hearty, satisfying, but not too-heavy meal, one that hits complex and simple notes equally well. Ostensibly a story about the difficulties of fusing your life's path with another person's, it treads well the line between speaking about universal romantic entanglements and teetering into the trite or cliched. Even the sappier sentimental moments — a meet-cute at a costume New Year's Eve party (those exist?), the film's goofy final surprise — are kissed with a bit of homey realness. The film is breezy and goes down smooth, but it is clearly the product of a lot of work, or at the very least of a careful eye toward detail applied at every key moment. Who would have guessed that Jason Segel of all people, once the schlumpy teen Frankenstein of Freaks & Geeks, would one day blossom into our most promising male romantic comedian? (On the female side, Emily Blunt was a no-brainer.) And yet here he is, on both sides of the camera, telling warmhearted stories that don't skimp on funny. You've won us over, sir. We do.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.