High School Confidential

I DON'T THINK WHAT A person does for a living really reflects who he is," argues the dissatisfied Martin Q. Blank (John Cusack) to his shrink Dr. Oatman (Alan Arkin). Though millions of people, no doubt, feel exactly the way Martin does, few of them are professional hit men. Martin is, which helps explain why his shrink is scared to death of him and also why Martin's quest for inner peace will be a rocky one.

Just consider-as the fresh, darkly funny Grosse Pointe Blank asks us to-how awkward it might be for an assassin to navigate his 10th high-school reunion. What kind of small talk will suffice? "I killed the president of Paraguay with a fork. How have you been?" When Martin shows up in Grosse Pointe, he has more than etiquette problems on his hands. He's supposed to rub someone out in nearby Detroit; his biggest rival (Dan Aykroyd), hurt that Martin refuses to join his hit men's union, wants him dead, and the Feds are on his tad. On top of all this, Martin is hoping to rekindle a romance with his high-school flame Debi (Minnie Driver), whom he stood up 10 years earlier at their senior prom, and who is much too decent to be happy about his career choice.

A premise this preposterous must be carried off with unflappable comic conviction, and Cusack is just the right man for the job. His comic timing hasn't been this precise since "Say Anything," and he's become downright debonair as a romantic partner, making sweet chemistry with Driver. Under director George Armitage--who hasn't made a movie since the terrific "Miami Blues" in 1990--everyone from the stars to the supporting players (Joan Cusack, Michael Cudlitz, Jeremy Piven) seems turned on by the project. A spontaneous, improvisatory glee lights up the best scenes. As a satire, "Grosse Pointe Blank" doesn't completely add up-the parts are greater than the whole-but it's very much alive and kicking.