06.27.10

Tom Cruise's Failed Comeback

Much of the media approached Cruise’s latest movie, Knight and Day, with grave-dancing vitriol. Why do people still want to hate the once-beloved actor?

Tom Cruise has become an easy target, his own worst enemy, what with that die-hard Scientology world-view and his eerily unshakeable confidence. But no one in his camp was prepared for the high-grade vitriol his latest movie summoned.

“He was pretty staunch about his feelings on Scientology,” said Henry Schafer of the marketing firm that measures Q scores. “And he hasn’t been able to recover from it.”

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Knight and Day was supposed to signal his triumphant big-budget return after the weirdness of the last few years. And though the film isn’t the box-office disaster so many predicted, earning about $40 million worldwide, it is, comparatively, a weak opening for Cruise, proving that despite all his careful career therapy and willing self-parody, the comeback will have to wait.

Knight and Day is a benign bit of moviegoing meringue. Cruise plays a rogue agent on the run who ropes an unsuspecting blonde (Cameron Diaz) into his globe-trotting hijinks. The actor looks fit for his 48 years, and he comes off much as he has in real life: a touch unhinged, but oddly compelling nonetheless. When I saw it last week, the audience seemed duly charmed, laughing in all the right places and, as they left, marveling audibly at the spectacular car chases.

But to read a good portion of the media, this film was the most offensive bit of cinema to hit Hollywood in a generation. Reporters declared it a bomb weeks before its release and blamed Cruise and his dimming appeal to moviegoers. Critics were divided. The Los Angeles Times called it “the most entertaining made-for-adults studio movie of the summer.” But the bad reviews were atrocious. The New York Post said the movie had “no apparent ambition other than plugging a hole in a studio’s schedule because its faded star happened to be available for a few weeks.” “So what is missing?” asked The New York Times’ A.O. Scott. “Oh, I don’t know—wit, fun, sexual tension, risk, originality.”

The day the film was released, Deadline.com’s Mike Fleming was reporting rumors that Knight and Day’s soft opening—a mere $3.6 million on Wednesday—was sure to thwart the next sequel of his one successful franchise, Mission: Impossible IV. The next morning, Perez Hilton giddily tweeted, “His box office glory days are over!”

“I don’t know if I’ve ever seen anything like this,” said one weary 20th Century Fox executive, referring to the staggering volume of pre-release venom this film inspired.

By Thursday, Cruise’s team was trying desperately to redirect the media narrative, pointing to positive Twitter and Facebook posts about the actor as a way to demonstrate the movie’s staying power. And the studio is hopeful about that, too: The summer is long, and this film is “a slower burn,” the Fox executive said.

There are myriad reasons why Knight and Day didn’t re-boot Cruise as planned, some of which have less to do with Cruise than the way the film was marketed and released. But it all eventually leads back to the shenanigans of 2005, when he presented himself as spokesman of the Church of Scientology, an organization many people consider a cult. Cruise’s positive Q score—an important measure of consumer appeal as devised by New York-based Marketing Evaluations Inc.—dropped precipitously after his outbursts from an “above average” 29 to “average” 19. In March of this year, his Q score was 17 with no signs of budging.

The problem, as Marketing Evaluations spokesman Henry Schafer, sees it, is not Cruise’s behavior as much as it is his perceived unwillingness to back down from his position.

“He was pretty staunch about his feelings on Scientology,” said Schafer. “And he hasn’t been able to recover from it.”

Indeed, Cruise went off the rails in such an unexpectedly bizarre way that a Robert Downey Jr.-style bender would have been a relief by comparison—or at least more easily explained. He hurled himself around Oprah Winfrey's set like a maniac declaring his love for Katie Holmes. He condemned Brooke Shields for taking Paxil to treat her suicidal, post-partum depression. He got belligerent with Matt Lauer on the Today show and told Entertainment Weekly that psychiatry was "Nazi science."

Still, it’s worth noting that Cruise’s box-office clout held steady. War of the Worlds, the film he was supposed to be promoting during all those interviews, was still the fourth-highest-grossing film of 2005, earning nearly $600 million worldwide. A year later, Forbes still named Cruise No.1 on its annual Power List.

But there was more outlandishness to come. In late 2007, photos of an eye-patch wearing Cruise posing stone-faced in a Nazi uniform were released to the media, a catastrophically misguided attempt to build buzz on his drama Valkyrie. (That film, released about a year later, was otherwise well-received, and went on to earn about $200 million worldwide.)

Then in January 2008, clips of Cruise earnestly preaching his devotion to the Church of Scientology and accepting the organization’s Freedom Medal turned up on YouTube, right around the same time that Andrew Morton’s unauthorized biography of Cruise hit shelves, ranking him the church’s No. 2.

“He became the poster child for that world,” said one veteran movie publicist. “That didn’t help him.”

Ultimately, Cruise turned to self-parody, making a cameo in Ben Stiller’s 2008 comedy Tropic Thunder as the fat, bald, audaciously vulgar movie producer Les Grossman and that same year in Ludacris’ “Get Back” video. The character worked.

So, last month, Cruise marched him out again, this time onstage at the MTV Movie Awards. There he was in a bald cap, fake chest hair and a fat suit, spanking Jennifer Lopez and shaking his padded rump. It was, aside from the couch-jumping on Oprah’s show, his most popular performance in years.

And yes, there’s now a Les Grossman film in development. Cruise is no quitter.

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story stated that Knight and Day was Cruise’s worst opening weekend box office performance in 18 years. Jerry Maguire, Lions for Lambs, and A Few Good Men all made less money in their first wide-release weekends.

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Gina Piccalo spent a decade at the Los Angeles Times covering Hollywood. She's now a contributing writer for Los Angeles Magazine and her work has appeared in Elle, More, and Emmy. She can be found at ginapiccalo.com.