John Cusack has been a grifter and a hit man, a pathetic puppeteer and a friend of Adolf Hitler.

Yet even when he plays offbeat, flawed or downright reprehensible characters -- and Charlie Arglist, the embezzling mafia lawyer in his latest film, "The Ice Harvest," certainly qualifies as reprehensible -- moviegoers can't help but like him. (See review on Page 39.)

There are plenty of reasons behind the Chicago native's appeal. He's certainly handsome, though in a more accessible way than your typical candidates for People magazine's Sexiest Man Alive. He's talented, as his work in nearly 50 films -- from "The Sure Thing" to "Bullets Over Broadway" to "Being John Malkovich" -- attests. And he played Lloyd Dobler in 1989's "Say Anything," a fact that carries great weight with anyone who believes a kickboxer hoisting a boombox above his head constitutes the ultimate romantic gesture. (And, really, who doesn't believe that?) But as important as those factors are, the actor's likability ultimately stems from how easy it is to relate to him when he's inhabiting someone else's skin.

"You don't really judge your characters' behavior morally, you just try to get to a place emotionally where you can understand the choices they've made," explains Cusack during a Thanksgiving week phone call from his Chicago home. "If you look at any character with the right set of eyes, they can be fascinating, or at least human. I try to bring out those characteristics that are human.

"But then," he adds, referring to the endlessly pretentious program "Inside the Actors Studio," "maybe that's the Bravo Channel answer."

Known for his ability to bounce between light fare and risky, unconventional work, it's no surprise to see Cusack following this summer's sunny and cuddly "Must Love Dogs" with "The Ice Harvest," a blacker-than-coal comedy set on a bone-chillingly bleak Christmas Eve in Wichita. Cusack and his "Pushing Tin" co-star, Billy Bob Thornton, play a pair of sleazy schemers attempting to skip town with more than $2 million of a mafia boss's money. Of course, their plans go disturbingly awry, but don't expect Cusack's character to eventually experience an epiphany a la George Bailey in "It's a Wonderful Life." Instead, he spends much of the film tending to a drunken buddy, frequenting strip clubs with names such as the Sweet Cage, trying to avoid a hit man, disappointing his children and knocking back every last alcoholic drop in his ever-present flask. The storyline eventually turns so macabre that it makes the unrated version of "Bad Santa" seem festive by comparison.

That combination of desperation and humor attracted Cusack to the project. The fact that "Harvest" was filmed in the Chicago area and directed by fellow Chicago native Harold Ramis, the man behind such classic comedies as "Caddyshack" and "Groundhog Day," made it an even more obvious choice.

"One of the draws was that we could do this right away, and we could do it with Harold in Chicago," Cusack says, his accent -- "Chi-caw-go" -- briefly creeping into his comments. "I hadn't worked for about a year and a half before I did this movie, so I was kind of looking to get back to work."

It's an explanation that sounds very practical, a quality Cusack seems to embrace. Throughout this interview, he answers questions amiably but shares nothing about his private life. When a reporter innocently asks whether Cusack has ever experienced a particularly gloomy Christmas, he deflects politely by saying that he prefers not to discuss personal matters. It's an approach that seems to have worked for him; although past romantic relationships with actresses Neve Campbell and "Grosse Pointe Blank" co-star Minnie Driver garnered mentions in some celebrity magazines, the actor has largely avoided the intrusive and fleeting paparazzi flashes of fame, maintaining a reputation as a down-to-earth everyman. One example of that everymanness: He closed his interview with this reporter by saying, "If you see me on the street some time, make sure you stop me and say hello."

As he approaches his 40th birthday next June, Cusack seems more focused than ever on adding to his respectable body of work.

"I want to be doing things that I really like and care about, to continue playing the studio game, and leverage that to do films that I like," he says.

Directing may be a possibility, though he notes, "I only want to do it when I have something I feel really compelled to direct." In the meantime, he plans to keep acting, producing and writing; he co-wrote the screenplays for "High Fidelity" and "Grosse Pointe Blank."

No matter where his career takes him, some fans may always think of him as that guy with the boombox from "Say Anything." Cusack sounds okay with that.

"It's kind of a high-class problem," he says. "If that was a film I didn't think was any good, then [having people talk about it] would be kind of painful somehow. But I was always proud of that film, so it's nice to be remembered for something like that."

"The Ice Harvest's" John Cusack, right, with director Harold Ramis. In the dark comedy, Cusack plays a lawyer trying to skip town on Christmas Eve with a mobster's money.