Tom Cruise Can Still Be Great -- Why Aren't His Movies?

Tom Cruise Can Still Be Great -- Why Aren't His Movies?
Cruise in Oblivion.

Though he's long been among the most recognizable celebrities in the world, Tom Cruise has always seemed vaguely irritating, like the popular kid at school everybody secretly dislikes. His is an odd sort of fame: globally recognized but rarely acclaimed, he remains more reliably bankable than nearly any other actor of his generation, his presence an almost guaranteed boon to a film's bottom line despite being a magnet for bad press and, in recent years especially, mild scandal.

Part of the problem, of course, is that our gossip-saturated conception of celebrity culture privileges private controversy over professional achievement. That's why, in the public imagination, a few years of incriminating tabloid headlines have apparently eclipsed the accomplishments of a three-decade career, effectively transforming a once-celebrated star into a spectacle of folly.

What's strange about this perceptual shift isn't so much that a respected actor's reputation has been summarily tarnished—it would hardly be the first time public sentiment curdled so suddenly, as it did with Charlie Chaplin and Fatty Arbuckle—as it is that Cruise's recent bout with popular opinion began during one of his career's most prosperous periods.

Cruise in Eyes Wide Shut.
Cruise in Eyes Wide Shut.

In 2005, the year of his notorious couch-hopping meltdown, Cruise had just delivered back-to-back performances in two of his most compelling films: first came Michael Mann's groundbreaking foray into digital filmmaking, Collateral, in which Cruise played a virtuoso hitman chauffeured around downtown Los Angeles by a reluctant cabbie, played by Jamie Foxx. Collateral found Cruise consciously subverting an increasingly shopworn routine, suppressing his trademark charisma and recalibrating his charm toward something decidedly understated.

Cruise starred in Steven Spielberg's War of the Worlds the following year. Though not particularly well-received upon release—at least by the standards of Spielberg, whose previous film with Cruise, 2002's Minority Report, was a massive hit both critically and commercially—it seems apparent now that Worlds represented a serious effort on the part of both director and star to grapple with some of the lingering residual anxieties of the period. In many ways the film endures as one of the definitive works of post-9/11 cinema. Our cultural conversation neglected this dimension of the film in favor of vacuous rumor-mongering, which suggests the degree to which we value watercooler gossip over deep engagement.

Not that any of this was new to Cruise, mind you. He'd already sparred with the press in a years-long public relations battle more than five years before Scientology and Oprah's couch ever entered the discussion, when aspersions cast on his sexuality eclipsed recognition of his work. This was around 1999, the actor's artistic peak. That was the year in which Cruise starred in Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut, the great director's final film and arguably his richest, as well as appearing in a crucial supporting role in Paul Thomas Anderson's widely hailed Magnolia.

What these movies share—more than simply being major, somewhat difficult works by important, infamously difficult filmmakers—is that they more or less relegate Cruise to a position of weakness, simultaneously tapping into his stardom and pointedly undermining it. Eyes Wide Shut finds Cruise being shut down and emasculated at every turn; Magnolia, meanwhile, finds his exaggeratedly macho poses thoroughly deconstructed, his persona exposed as phony.

These qualities prove intriguing, but they also prove, more significantly, that Cruise was once willing to relinquish control of his image to filmmakers whose creative judgment he clearly trusted, which resulted in work of surprising intelligence and sophistication—unsurprisingly, some of the best of his career. Lately, however, Cruise has taken the opposite approach: rather than actively seek roles that challenge his iconography and legacy, he's receded into complacency and, even worse, seemingly desperate self-mythologizing.

When he isn't busy reprising one of his least interesting roles—Mission Impossible's milquetoast hero Ethan Hunt—he's hard at work (re)building his own reputation from the ground up, furiously reasserting his masculine prowess and utter infallibility in such trifles as Jack Reacher and the antiseptic sci-fi trifle Oblivion.

It's not that these roles or even films are bad, necessarily—though Jack Reacher is pretty lousy—but rather that they're uninteresting, which for an actor once respected for making genuinely daring choices is disappointing. Cruise seems stuck making films for the sake of his agent rather than for his audience or the cinema. Perhaps this is simply an extended period of downtime for an actor known to occasionally phone it in, as he did in Vanilla Sky and The Last Samurai.

But it's possible that maybe this is a delayed response to how often we've ignored Cruise's capacity to branch out and surprise, a kind of career shrug from a guy resigned to the fact that, no matter how hard he tries, we'll always focus on his personal life instead of his talent. Whenever Tom Cruise most obviously deserves acclaim and recognition, the cameras are directed toward something private and wholly unrelated, and the conversation shifts from praise to scrutiny to vehement rejection.

 
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10 comments
Stevart
Stevart

"Eyes Wide Shut finds Cruise being shut down and emasculated at every turn."  Fortunately, this saved his life in the film where he rather clumsily negotiates a sexual mine-field he is poorly adapted for.  Playing the neurotic Jewish Doctor Bill is his best role as Tom's lack of charisma and lack of REAL sex appeal worked perfectly for the role. Cruise is very good looking but he lacks sex appeal as his energy is frenetic, like a precocious adolescent he is bursting at the seams, the only thing he is missing is the acne.

paulie227
paulie227

Hate much? Where are you people (critics) getting this stuff from? I'll go to any movie with Tom Cruise's name on it because I know I will be entertained. The man works hard and puts everything into a movie, including doing his own very dangerous stunts. His last Mission Impossible wowed everyone including you people (critics).   I also liked Knight and Day, Jack Reacher, and all the Mission Impossible. Since when in the land of the free and freedom to worship is it okay to vilify someone for their religious beliefs? As far as I know Scientologists are adults and can make their own decisions about who or what they choose to worship. I haven't heard anything about Scientologists molesting children or setting small animals on fire. As far as I can tell, he keeps his mind and body clean, doesn't do drugs, and hasn't done anything to deserve the continued hate. Most men should look so good at 50. What irritates you people is he doesn't discuss his private life in public and his spouses/ex-spouses don't spill all the juicy details about his private life. I admire all the true movie stars. Denzel Washington and Tom Hanks come to mind. Tom looks good and has a wider range in his acting than any of you "critics" give him credit for. His movies earn millions of dollars world wide. That alone speaks for itself. As long as he keeps making 'em, I'll keep spending my $10. Jealous much? 

mrpoizun
mrpoizun

Let's not be ridiculous here.  Cruise has always been a Ken-doll kind of actor, plastic, malleable, but only up to a point.  He has never been considered Oscar-worthy, and never will be.  He seems to be under some kind of a spell, both as an actor and during his public appearances.  Gee, you don't suppose being in thrall to the Scientology cult has something to do with that do you?  In other words, nothing has changed about him or his acting abilities or the roles he chooses.  The only thing that has changed is the audience is getting fed up with all of it.

Lynne12
Lynne12

I agree with all other 3 persons posting. Tom's 'couch dance' was hardly a meltdown-and the media/critics lives far in the past and clearly grab at straws. We don't mind Cruise and we buy the tickets.

ProudMick
ProudMick

Is it any wonder he continues to perform in adventure roles? Wouldn't you if your adventures grossed hundreds of millions? 

(Except for a few haters) guys feel like he'd make for a good buddy, and girls like his looks and joie-de-vie. So his movies appeal to these social emotions.

Whenever Cruise has challenged himself with roles of deeper characters, he's usually praised for his renditions, yet those box office results haven't been magical. 

The problem is that many critics--unlike the ticket-buying public--are stuck in Cruise's past. The limitation is theirs. They can't see him in adventure movies without having their own mental flashbacks to couches and his having the stones to politely set Matt Lauer straight. Guys do things like that. Move along. 

One critic made the point that Cruise performs up to the depth and demands of the role he's in. Does anyone think that Clooney's "Oceans" series were high and intellectual drama?  No one gave him the grief they give Cruise. 

You have to think there's some small-minded bigotry involved. Meantime, when Joe and Sue, in 40 countries, want a good date movie, any Tom Cruise film makes a fine after-dinner treat!


RightOnRightOn
RightOnRightOn

I agree with Bobwingsfan, WTH, V V? "Couch hopping meltdown?" Jesus Christ, the guy was in love! How many girls would like to see their man that happy about them? Then, against all defendable logic, you ask "Why aren't his movies great?" Uh, there seems to be $200-$300 million worth of global fans consistently that disagree with you. Fact checking anyone? Knight and Day, deemed a "failure" by some U.S. critics was in fact FOX studio's highest grossing film of the year that year. Jack Reacher went on to do $216 million worldwide which puts him in a very small club. Jeez, you guys bother to look up the numbers at all? C'mon, step up the quality of reporting, please! Its no wonder online media site numbers are dropping, the writing is increasingly filled with errors, bias and just plain poor writing!

Bobwingsfan
Bobwingsfan

The Village Voice canstill be a great news organization -- Why do articles like these suck?. Seriously did Tom Cruise rape someones kid at the Village Voice - let the hate die.

kennedyterry007
kennedyterry007

I think Tom is a greatactor and a good human being , I met him twenty years ago in Dublin and met him again Afew weeks ago with my kids he was still the same giving us his time and posing for photos .i don't care what the media say about himit's all bullshit .Tom is a good guy

ProudMick
ProudMick

@mrpoizun

Haters can't see past their dysfunctional personalities to read dollar signs. 

If you think "the audience is getting fed up" just visit imdb.com to see that Cruise is one of the top five most reliably bankable cinema stars.  And that's a world-cl;ass accomplishment in today's youth-driven culture. 



Binkconn
Binkconn

@mrpoizun "He has never been considered Oscar-worthy, and never will be."

Uh, never seen Born On The Fourth Of July, I take it?  He was fabulous in that, as well as Magnolia, nominated for both. The reviewer's thesis seems to hold: if you don't give a shit, why should I?

 

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