Movie stars go cold. It’s part of the way popular culture works. For a long time, people just love watching them. People can’t get enough of them. And then, after they go to the well once too often with a formula that has gone flat, or after their messy personal lives get all mixed up in the characters they’re playing, stars become even slightly distasteful.
Just in the past year, it’s become clear that Will Smith, for a decade the biggest star in the world, has lost it. And after two enormous flops, Johnny Depp—who single-handedly earned Disney nearly $3 billion in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies—can’t get anyone to see him in anything else. Adam Sandler, an incredibly reliable money-maker in his self-produced fare for the better part of two decades, can’t get audiences to the theaters. And this past week has shown that Tom Cruise has now indisputably fallen into the also-ran category as well. His latest vehicle, a $175 million futuristic war epic called Edge of Tomorrow, was a major box-office disappointment in its opening days.
The Cruise case is especially interesting because, of all the A-list Hollywood actors over the 30 years he’s been a star, he has distinguished himself in his effort to make the best movies he can—not good little movies or indie-film character studies, but high-quality fare intended to reach large audiences. That is particularly true of Edge of Tomorrow, which—until a dull climactic sequence and a stupid coda—is a genuinely inventive and thrillingly clever picture.
I expected very little from Edge of Tomorrow, whose previews suggested it was a humorless ripoff of Groundhog Day (1993), which may well be the best American film of the past quarter--century. But the director, Doug Liman, working off of a script by a rather large number of credited writers, takes the Groundhog Day inspiration—one day, relived endlessly—and manages to take it in new directions.
The movie works almost exclusively because of Cruise, playing a slick PR executive who finds himself, untrained and unprepared, among the first wave of soldiers in a D-Day-like invasion force—a force that is almost instantly decimated. Cruise deploys his famous smile in the movie’s opening scenes, but rather than making him seem winning and attractive, the grin exposes the hollowness of his character.
Even the way he moves is a marvel; as we watch him repeat the day, we see him slowly grow in physical confidence. He is trapped in a metal body suit with weaponry built into it that he does not know how to manipulate. In the first couple of scenes, he waddles and stumbles and is almost haplessly comic. Then he begins to get it. Then he gets it some more. Eventually, he becomes almost supernaturally able.
Edge of Tomorrow is a potent reminder of just how good a movie actor Tom Cruise can be. He has limits, to be sure: There is nothing of the chameleon in him, save for his indelible and unrecognizable turn as a foul-mouthed studio executive in the hilarious Tropic Thunder (2008). Still, he roots himself in the characters he can play as deeply as anyone: Think of him as the flaky pool hustler in The Color of Money (1986), the con-man car salesman in Rain Man (1988), the sybaritic Lestat in Interview with the Vampire (1994), the self-help guru in Magnolia (1999), the mysterious tough guy in Jack Reacher (2012)—and, most notably, the sports agent with a conscience in Jerry Maguire (1996). These are all terrific performances.
Cruise cooled off not because his movies went sour but because he did. In 2005, he went on Oprah Winfrey’s talk show and professed his love for his (now ex-) wife Katie Holmes by jumping up and down on Oprah’s couch in a display of heterosexual exuberance so false you might say that, to many, it seemed he was growing a beard right there on the air. Later, he appeared on the Today show and got into a bizarre fight with host Matt Lauer about the wisdom of Brooke Shields taking an antidepressant—of a piece with his fundamentalist belief in Scientology.
These images of the real Cruise, jumping on a couch and yelling about Paxil, have been superimposed on Cruise the movie star. You can’t really see the latter without remembering the former, and those memories are uncomfortable ones. Outside the United States, where audiences either don’t know or don’t care about all that, Cruise remains a potent draw, and it’s possible that Edge of Tomorrow will end up doing all right because of the foreign box office.
Still, Cruise provides an important cautionary lesson for every would-be movie star in the age of YouTube: Keep some mystery about you. Which means, basically: Shut up.