Cruise-Par split case of Ari imitating life

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Inadvertently, HBO's "Entourage," which this week unveiled the final episode of its current season, might have written the final word on the messy Paramount Pictures/Tom Cruise breakup.

The plugged-in "Entourage" team didn't comment specifically on the Paramount-Cruise impasse, of course. Instead, the season ender, written by Doug Ellin and Rob Weiss and directed by Julian Farino, began as newly minted star Vincent Chase (Adrian Grenier) musters up the determination to fire his longtime agent, Ari Gold. (As if to demonstrate just how much a part of the current Hollywood zeitgeist "Entourage" is, Jeremy Piven, who stars as the playing-every-angle Gold, picked up an Emmy on Sunday night.)

On the surface, Vincent is contemplating a business move. Ari has bungled a recent deal. Other agencies are lining up to promise the young star of "Aquaman" that they can turn him into an international brand name. As for Ari, who has just opened his new agency, he can't afford to lose Vincent. It's not just about the lost commissions; Vincent's departure also could slow the agency's momentum.

But while millions of dollars are at stake, the drama is less about dollars and sense than it is about the emotional investment Ari and Vincent have made in each other. In fact, the whole episode is something of a baroque counterpoint of bruised feelings.

Vincent has offended Warner Bros. studio chief Alan Gray (Paul Ben-Victor) by balking over "Aquaman 2." Ari has offended veteran producer Bob Ryan (Martin Landau) by freezing him out of meetings over a script Ryan controls that Vincent wants to star in. In retribution, Ryan sells the script to Gray, who intends to shelve it to spite Vincent. Got that? And Vincent blames Ari for the screw-up.

So what does any of that have to do with the end of Cruise's relationship with Paramount and the actor-producer's determination to strike out on his own with independent funding? (This week, he announced a new development fund backed by Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder, among others.) In the real world, the financial calculations underlying the Paramount-Cruise split involved much bigger stakes than the fictional Vincent-Ari dust-up. Cruise may have earned millions for the studio, but the studio was in no mood to commit to funding him on the same luxe levels once the disappointing though hardly disastrous grosses on "Mission: Impossible III" revealed a possible chink in his armor.

But the way the breakup played out also suggested that raw emotions were involved. It is impossible to know whether the public tongue-lashing Viacom chairman Sumner Redstone gave Cruise genuinely represented the canny exec's true motive or was simply a shrewd bit of misdirection.

It hinted, though, that on some level, everyone involved was acting out a dysfunctional family drama: Redstone is the grumpy pater familias who had lost patience with his privileged grandson. Studio chairman Brad Grey, the new stepdad brought in to run the business, had found a new golden boy in his former producing partner, Brad Pitt, and wanted to rein in Cruise's deal. Cruise and his camp, having enriched the family over the years, were offended that Paramount had been signaling its moves in the press, a form of public humiliation.

On "Entourage," Vincent ultimately confesses to Ari that, all business aside, a simple apology could have salvaged their relationship. That's the unknowable element in Hollywood's business dealings. For all the attempts to let spreadsheets dictate the outcome, human emotions still can sink a deal.
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