Critic’s Notebook: Tom Cruise, Show Us the Money — but Also the Weirdness

Courtesy of Photofest
Tom Cruise in 'Collateral.'

Tom Cruise has survived a decade of career wobbles and public near-meltdowns thanks to action-hero fare like the "Mission: Impossible" films, but his best performances have always tapped into his creepy, clammy, cranky side.

Last year, Tom Cruise starred in Edge of Tomorrow as a smarmy US Army deserter caught in a time loop that keeps bringing him back to the previous morning after he is repeatedly killed by alien invaders. A cross between War of the Worlds and Groundhog Day, Doug Liman’s futuristic fantasy featured one of the 53-year-old’s smartest, most layered performances in a filmography spanning more than three decades.

Many critics could not resist drawing parallels with Cruise’s own bumpy career, which time and time again has seemed to be on the verge of crashing, yet keeps bouncing back stronger than before. After some bizarre public outbursts and spats, two dramatic divorces and increasingly unsettling rumors and revelations about his Scientology connections, Brand Cruise is depleted but clearly not defeated: His new film, Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, may push the actor’s box-office total north of $8 billion, making him one of the most consistently bankable stars in movie history.

Of course, charm, charisma and smart choices are part of the package. He built his career with flashy Reagan-era vehicles like Risky Business and Top Gun, delivering performances that were all Ray-Ban shades, toothy grin and cocksure swagger. And for his first two decades in the spotlight, Cruise maintained an iron control on his image — banning toys made in his likeness, employing heavy-duty publicists and litigation-happy lawyers, doing appearances that were salesman-slick and politician-smooth, carefully choreographed for maximum public exposure and minimum personal risk.

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But the shiny surface began to crack, most memorably with 2005’s notoriously overheated, sofa-jumping Oprah Winfrey appearance during the early days of his romance with Katie Holmes. Soon he started speaking a bit more openly about Scientology, and his criticisms of psychiatry and anti-depressant drugs led to a damaging public dispute with Brooke Shields. In 2006, Paramount ended its 14-year relationship with the star’s production company as Sumner Redstone blamed Cruise’s "recent conduct" and "creative suicide."

Many seemed surprised that Cruise’s squeaky-clean, golden-boy hero persona appeared to mask more eccentric, even disturbing impulses. But those who had been paying attention to the actor’s work — his best performances, in fact — had long sensed it. Indeed, Cruise’s more ambitious collaborations, with revered auteurs like Stanley Kubrick, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Paul Thomas Anderson, Oliver Stone and Michael Mann, had semi-regularly spiked his filmography with invigorating doses of darkness.

Many of Cruise’s characters in those films were prickly, unsympathetic or downright creepy, playing directly off growing perceptions of Cruise’s own off-screen ickiness in interesting ways. In Neil Jordan’s 1994 Interview with the Vampire, Cruise played Lestat, a lascivious bloodsucker with an edge of gothic camp. Five years later, in Kubrick’s swan song Eyes Wide Shut, he starred opposite then-wife Nicole Kidman as Bill Harford, a Manhattan doctor drawn into a sinister erotic underworld. His star power muted, the actor delivered a compellingly sullen, anguished performance.

A few subsequent roles used Cruise’s iconic good looks to even more pointed and perverse effect. In 2000, he took a rare supporting part in Anderson’s Magnolia as the grossly misogynistic professional pick-up artist Frank TJ Mackey, tapping into the toxic underside of his own sex appeal — and earning an Oscar nomination in the process. The following year, in Cameron Crowe’s Vanilla Sky, Cruise played David Aames, a narcissistic millionaire playboy so defined by his handsome face he can no longer bear living in reality after he's disfigured.

Other films tweaked Cruise’s good-guy action-hero image. In Spielberg’s high-tech murder mystery Minority Report, the actor brought noirish moral shadings to his portrayal of John Anderton, a renegade cop whose future crimes are foretold by police psychics. And in Mann’s 2004 Collateral, his Vincent was a coldly methodical hitman with no flicker of redemptive humanity.

Another Cruise performance was uncategorizably, and refreshingly, odd. In Ben Stiller’s Tropic Thunder (2008), he was nearly unrecognizable in a fat suit and bald cap as Les Grossmann, a hot-tempered, profanity-spouting movie mogul with a fondness for dancing grotesquely around his office.

These were all inspired attempts by Cruise and his collaborators to push back against the actor’s onscreen wholesomeness and spookily ageless beauty — to explore the inner weirdo peeking increasingly through his once-flawless armor with every new report of his unorthodox romantic entanglements ("auditions" to be Mrs. Cruise?) and religious fervor.

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If anything, Cruise’s public image has frayed further in recent months. His continued involvement with Scientology and close friendship with Church leader David Miscavige were the basis of unflattering portrayals in Lawrence Wright’s 2013 book Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief and Alex Gibney’s recent documentary of the same name.

It remains to be seen whether those revelations will do lasting damage to his reputation. In reality, Cruise’s space-lizard beliefs are more interesting to a gossip-hungry media, including film critics (an agnostic group if there ever was one), than to his global audience of genre geeks, action buffs and swooning female fans.

Moreover, like any smart CEO, Cruise has responded to wobbles in his career by retreating into his comfort zone of sci-fi and action franchises, genres that typically deliver the biggest returns. The fact that a belated sequel to Top Gun is in development confirms that he’s playing safe with viewer expectations.

As Washington Post business writers Ryan McCarthy and Jim Tankersley noted in a feature last year, Cruise’s current default screen role is "The Cool, Unemotional Specialist Who Saves the Public." That’s good news for the mainstream demographic, but not necessarily for those of us who believe the star has more to offer than formulaic techno-thriller spectacle.

Films like Edge of Tomorrow perhaps indicate a happy compromise, and a new template to follow: a marriage of Cruise’s sci-fi action-man antics with his more darkly comic, flawed, anti-heroic characters. The blockbusters can obviously sustain him for a few more years, but it would be a shame to lose his sideline in more challenging movies that sometimes feel like fascinatingly confessional insights into the man himself, flaws and all.

Show me the money? Sure. But show me emotional cracks and wit and weirdness, too.

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