Tom Cruise: A Comic Comeback

The actor shines in the all-star cast of Tropic Thunder. Will his performance win over the press and spark interest in his next role?

This is hard to say. I am a Tom Cruise convert. Yes, this is the same Tom Cruise we recall talking up Scientology, dismissing Brooke Shields's postpartum use of antidepressants, and tsk-tsking Matt Lauer in a Today show interview punctuated by a strung-out appearance courtesy of black circles under his eyes.

But I just got back from a screening of Ben Stiller's very funny movie Tropic Thunder, in which Tom Terrific is the funniest thing. Playing a swaggering, bald movie executive with a razor-quick temper and a four-letter-word vocabulary—you know, the perfect Hollywood suit—Cruise steals the movie from Stiller and co-stars Robert Downey Jr. and Jack Black. By the end of the movie, when Cruise is doing what we'll charitably call a dance, his shirt unbuttoned to reveal a forest of hair and gold chains, all has been forgiven. At least for me.

Tropic Thunder probably doesn't need Tom Cruise to be a hit. It's funny and crude, and it stars a threesome of very bankable actors. We're talking north of $100 million easily for Paramount (VIAB), which is distributing it. But as reviews start rolling in, Cruise will be the big winner. Reporters who have loved to hate Cruise since his couch-jumping episode on Oprah in 2005 are going to see an actor who no longer views the world as his personal pin cushion. As one trusted Hollywood marketing executive tells me: "Just getting the press on your side is 50% of the battle. If the press hates you, the public starts to as well."

So maybe the negative press goes away. The bigger question for me is whether Tom Cruise's comic turn will restore his box office luster, which has been going south for some time. His last big role, the 2006 Mission: Impossible 3, opened at a weak-kneed $47.7 million—far below the $70.8 million opening six years earlier when he suited up as super-spy Ethan Hunt in Mission: Impossible 2. As Matthew McConaughey, who plays Hollywood agent Rick Peck in Tropic Thunder, tells struggling action star Tugg Speedman (Stiller): "You're like that kid with lice that no one wants to get close to."

Image Overhaul?

No small irony there, Tom. But will Cruise's Tropic Thunder role translate into a boffo opening for his next flick, Valkyrie? Cruise had better hope so. The film, scheduled for release in February, was produced by Cruise and his longtime agent and producing partner, Paula Wagner, for United Artists, of which he and Wagner own a piece. But Valkyrie, in which Cruise plays the eye-patched Nazi officer who unsuccessfully tried to assassinate Adolf Hitler, has its share of challenges. Will audiences warm up to a Nazi, even one who tries to do good? Will they warm to Cruise wearing that goofy eye patch?

Folks who have seen near-complete cuts of Valkyrie tell me the movie is a tight, suspenseful, well-made Nazi-esque version of Mission: Impossible without the spy gadgets. Director Bryan Singer (Superman Returns, X-Men) manages to keep you on the edge of your seat, even though you know Hitler survived the attempt. And, shockingly, some say you may cry a bit for Cruise's character, Colonel Claus Philipp Maria Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg, when he dies at the end.

Will whatever virtues the film has be enough to overcome our last image of Cruise in that gosh-awfully over-verbose excuse for a movie, Lions for Lambs? In that film, Cruise stars alongside Robert Redford and Meryl Streep as a Republican senator with plans to win the war in Afghanistan. The movie, which Cruise and Wagner produced and UA distributed, grossed an underwhelming $15 million.

As for Valkyrie, "if you give them a good film, the public will forgive anything you've done in the past," says my friend the marketing whiz. Maybe. It may also help that when folks get a look at a bald-headed, pot-bellied Cruise rap-dancing at the end of Tropic Thunder, no one will be wondering if he's ready to jump on the nearest couch.

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