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Tom Cruise's Inner Goober Misfires

Tom Cruise is up to his old tricks in Knight And Day, but they don't seem to work as well as they used to. Frank Masi/20th Century Fox hide caption

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Frank Masi/20th Century Fox

Tom Cruise deployed the goober this weekend, and it didn't entirely work. And that's got to have some people pretty worried.

Let's back up.

Knight And Day is not one of Tom Cruise's serious, earnest dramas, or one that calls upon him to thunder unconvincingly with righteous anger. It is, instead, one of those movies where Tom Cruise's teeth arrive to steal your wallet — and if it works on you, you will give your wallet over willingly. "Take my twenties, incisors!" you'll say, against every instinct that your mama and The Gift Of Fear ever taught you. It is an exceedingly silly movie, but if you decide to grab on instead of jump off, it's actually a lot of fun.

Still, it did worse than Grown Ups. By a lot.

The secret of Tom Cruise, which even Tom Cruise has never really entirely understood, is that there is an affable goober in there somewhere, no matter how often he comes off like an overly earnest and very odd cat. The affable goober was critical to Risky Business, and despite the success of Top Gun, which is goober-free, he would never have become who he was to U.S. pop culture had he not gone back to the goober every now and again.

What is this affable goober like, you ask? Well, part of the key to the appeal of Jerry Maguire (if in fact you find it appealing) is that he's such a yutz in it. His gorgeousness and his smoothness become fully integrated with that goofiness.

Remember when Bonnie Hunt, as the protective sister, tells Renee Zellweger that this boss she's comforting had better not be good-looking? And then she swings open the door, and he's there, with the teeth and the shades, grinning at her? And you just feel her exasperation. "Oh, great," say the waves of horror wafting from her. "It's going to be like this." The affable goober is the part of Tom Cruise that has a sense of humor about the fact that he's Tom Cruise — that he was made that way.

In short, Cruise has always been either clever or fortunate enough to find parts that let him parody himself a little. His slickness works best when it's cut with an understanding that it's ridiculous — that the grin is too much, that the dazzle rays should not work as they do.

And what's interesting is that Knight And Day is actually a great film for him in this particular way. That's why I thought it might help him a lot in the post-couch-jumping, post-Matt-Lauer era, which has been sort of difficult for him.

There is a moment in Knight And Day (and this is only a minor spoiler, really) in which Cruise and Cameron Diaz are dodging bullets in one of those gunfights where everybody is a terrible shot (which allows the gunfight to continue for far longer than it would ever plausibly take for one dude to shoot another dude). They're taking cover on opposite sides of an expanse into which hundreds of bullets are being fired, but of course they're bantering, because ... well, because that's the movie. And she says something that provokes him, and he suddenly turns the smolder up to oh-mercy-mercy and strides purposefully toward her. And miraculously, he is able to cross to her without getting shot, as the bullets fly impotently.

It's a very funny little wink at the absurdity of his invincibility, and it's where the movie's sense of humor shows most sharply. It's sort of where it won me over, because if a movie is going to show completely absurd motorcycle stunts, you'd like it to know they are completely absurd. You need the movie to be in on the joke.

As Kim Masters recently discussed on Morning Edition, the release of Knight And Day was a big deal for Hollywood, and for its perceived superstar problem, and for Tom Cruise. We've talked in the past about how you don't want to start a guy's eulogy while you still have to sit on the lid of the coffin to keep it closed, specifically with Will Ferrell and Judd Apatow — but part of the analysis in those cases was that neither Will Ferrell nor Judd Apatow was ever Tom Cruise. If there was ever an Age Of Will Ferrell or an Age Of Apatow, they were short and intense.

Tom Cruise, on the other hand, was Tom Cruise. There were years — maybe 10 of them — when the correct answer to the question "Who is the most famous person in the United States?" was probably "Tom Cruise." It's hard to remember, given his PR problems of recent years, but it used to be the case that Tom Cruise, in addition to being great-looking, seemed like an exceedingly good-natured guy. Just ask anyone who was around during the era in which Rosie O'Donnell — who also seemed more fun at the time, come to think of it — was obsessed with him and talked about it on her show constantly, until he finally appeared and they both giggled through about half of the interview.

It didn't really surprise me that Valkyrie didn't do much for Cruise. The gravity of Hitler is not a good mix with the persona that is Tom Cruise at this stage. But Knight And Day not helping him is a bigger deal. If you miss the Tom Cruise of old — Tom Cruise in A Few Good Men (hey, that's a funny movie; he does his Jack Nicholson in that movie), Tom Cruise in Top Gun, Tom Cruise in Risky Business, Tom Cruise in Jerry Maguire — then this is about as close as he's come in a while to showing you that guy again: the self-aware slickster. The affable goober.

Cruise has plenty of other stuff coming; he's got Mission: Impossible IV, for crying out loud. It's way too early to cry for him. But he played a card this weekend that he hasn't played in a while, and it's one that usually works. If that card isn't going to win many more tricks, then it's not clear what he's got left in his hand.