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.