Tom’s Cruise Blues

At the Ziegfeld Theater on Monday, June 17-where Tom Cruise’s new movie, Minority Report , was getting the full premiere treatment-the red-carpet territory was calm until- whoooosh !-Jerry Maguire swooped in, shortish, friendly, black-suited, black-booted, scruffy, stubbly and looking like a World Cup goalkeeper. The place went nuts. Flanked by a security detail that would have pleased Robert Mueller III, Mr. Cruise poured himself into the willing crowd, clutching hands, swirling his name on glossy photos, flashing his midlife braces and sucking up so much Manhattan air that pretty much everyone else-including his boss, gray-bearded Steven Spielberg-had to feel a little oxygen-deprived.

Mr. Cruise, of course, has been doing this for some time now, from nearly 20 years ago, when he danced in his briefs in Risky Business , and continuing with Top Gun , The Color of Money , Born on the Fourth of July , Rain Man , A Few Good Men , Mission: Impossible, M:I2 , Jerry Maguire and this year’s Vanilla Sky , a near-bomb that he nearly single-handedly herded into the $100 million–gross territory.

He’ll be 40 on July 3, and the media has generally agreed to state that he is the biggest star on the planet. He certainly has the look: Every one of his pictures is met with the deferential P.R. sound of non-rocking-the-boat commercial respect; the press is preconditioned, as it is with Disney World and Coca-Cola, to respect Mr. Cruise’s professionalism and commercialism. And his performances are good-or at least, they’re never bad . Other giant movie stars are capable of giving uncomfortable, unsuccessful performances-did you ever see Robert Redford in that movie with Demi Moore and Woody Harrelson, or Harrison Ford in Sabrina ? Anyone say Ishtar ? Not Mr. Cruise.

Besides, he is likable and as sleek and dark as Mickey Mouse was in his prime. Tom Cruise is the consummate professional: He does a lot of press, he shows up on time, he befriends the grip, he is a beautifully crafted movie star-particularly when he wears black-and at $30 million a picture, plus a percentage of the gross, possibly a bargain.

For Hollywood, Mr. Cruise is like an illustration of Warren Buffett’s principle that you should always buy the leader in any category. It doesn’t make it a sure thing, but it’s damn close. For studios, he’s a safety net on which a $100 million film can be settled and sold. How fitting that Minority Repor t is a futuristic thriller about predetermination-Mr. Cruise is, above all else, almost commercial predetermination itself.

For directors, he’s a rock.”He brings a focal point where all of the arrows point to the center,” Mr. Spielberg said at the Ziegfeld, as he stepped away from the human mob surrounding his star.

That doesn’t exactly explain Mr. Cruise’s appeal, and here’s where the man-boy thing comes in. Mr. Cruise has spent most of his professional career doing what may best be described as aspirational acting. From an early age, he has specialized in shiny actualizations of the young male ego-in almost all of his performances, he’s been muscular, intense, cocksure, charming and self-deprecating. Indeed, he nearly pulled all of that off, wheelchair-bound, playing Ron Kovic in Born on the Fourth of July . He looks great, he sounds great; sometimes you swear he even smells great. “He’s done some wonderful stuff,” James Lipton cooed after huddling with Mr. Cruise at the Minority Report after-party at Cipriani on 42nd Street. He is not the man hired to make anyone feel imperfect, or bad about the human condition. The 5-foot-7 Mr. Cruise is a little guy who doesn’t play the little guy; he is popularity personified, and reminds no one of a person they ignored in high school.

Still, money and power and celebrity can be nasty buggers, and together they have conspired to trap Mr. Cruise in a neat box of fame that is good for the June 2002 market but possibly problematic for the actor himself over the long term. We are told repeatedly of how affable Mr. Cruise is by people who meet with him and know him, but to the public Mr. Cruise is now less a person than a fantastic performance car, fast and clean, with a controlled edge of recklessness. Nonrevealing interviews serve only to dehumanize him further: Mr. Cruise has become, essentially, a commodity, a living product placement. This came to mind during the opening of Cameron Crowe’s Vanilla Sky , in which Mr. Cruise raced around a vacant Times Square, blitzed by flashing billboard advertisements and gyrating video teases. Theoretically, it was a statement about the infestation of commercial culture-but, of course, the best-known product on the screen was sweaty Mr. Cruise.

It is easy to say that Vanilla Sky brought Mr. Cruise a measure of humility; though the star has stood firmly behind it, the film earned just that $100 million (just!), was panned by confused critics, is spoken of fondly by few. That the film came shortly after Mr. Cruise’s split from wife Nicole Kidman fueled the rumination that Mr. Invincible had been bumped. This tumult could have shed new light, shown a new side of Mr. Cruise-divorce, after all, humanizes everyone but the Gabors-but after a few conciliatory quotes about his marriage, and cracking down some more on those rumors about his sexuality, he dusted himself off and went back to the well-oiled Tom Cruise game plan. He’s back to being rich and shiny and loved, and he’s got a new girlfriend in the sleek, lithe Penélope Cruz-a Sharper Image girlfriend for a Sharper Image guy-and he’s back in Minority Report , a booster-rocketed action film that may explain 2054, but won’t answer the question “What will Tom Cruise be when he grows up?”

He needs to decide. At a certain age and level of accomplishment, every successful star actor must vanquish his or her past and try to become somebody else. In his mid-40′s, Jimmy Stewart stopped being Mr. Smith and became Anthony Mann’s growling, grizzly action hero, marrying Indian maidens and getting the crap beaten out of him. By his 40′s, Tom Hanks, formerly a comic, started brooding and transformed himself into the Restoration Hardware version of Jimmy Stewart. (Such transformations don’t always work, of course. Recently Jim Carrey decided to stop being an ass, only to become a bigger ass.)

Mr. Cruise is at a similar crossroads. He remains, on the cusp of his fifth decade, a youthful ideal, even as faint facial lines begin to appear and crow’s feet form around his green eyes. He is, quite clearly, an adult, but still a tough sell as an adult. Perhaps this is why-rather than the knee-jerk belief that it would turn off audiences-Mr. Cruise has still yet to take that transformative role that allows boys to become men, as Paul Newman did in his late 30′s with The Hustler and Hud . Mr. Cruise’s potential breakout Hud -like role-his turn in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia as a misogynistic motivational coach (“Respect the cock! Tame the cunt!”)-was too brief to be transformative.Besides Jerry Maguire , he also hasn’t gotten a lot of adult laughs-which is fine, a great star can get away without that-but it makes one think about the difference between Tom Cruise and Tom Hanks. Mr. Hanks actually wears his pain on his face, on his gut, in his eyes. Mr. Cruise has pain also, but it’s his anthracite, embedded-and we don’t just know this from the interviews-somewhere back in his childhood. He ain’t the first, of course: that Peter Pan was also a pretty pissed-off boy.

But fame, really, is what wedged Mr. Cruise into Pan-land. He began with a small part in Endless Love and played a military academy loony in Taps, but his definitive early role, of course, was Joel Goodson in Paul Brickman’s Risky Business. Risky Business is perhaps the last honest teenage sex comedy-it’s well acted, beautifully shot and sophisticated, and almost as predictive in its way as The Graduate had been 15 years earlier-and yet its star, then 21 years old, is not terribly far removed from the Tom we know today. The quiet confidence and the trademark nervous intensity, mostly the layered sense of aloneness-why do you think the eruptive dancing scene in the house is so powerful?-it’s all there. But with it came the late-century sense of stressed beleaguerment: In one scene, Joel, harried about getting home to the brothel operating from his parents’ house, stares at a school clock, only to see it flick backwards. Mr. Cruise lets out the kind of angry yet hilarious groan that became a Cruise staple-like his rants at Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man , his fist-pumping meltdown in the bathroom with Cuba Gooding Jr. in Jerry Maguire , his jump-kick in Vanilla Sky when surgeons present him with a plastic face prosthesis.

What made Mr. Cruise in Risky Business , of course, was the innocence he would then have to give up; the kid who slid across the floor in his white briefs singing into a candlestick while dancing to “Old Time Rock ‘n’ Roll” probably did not envision the superstar being summoned to play the Charlton Heston role at the 2002 Oscars: “Should we celebrate the joy and magic that movies bring? Well, dare I say it? More than ever.”

Then again, maybe he would have: On the phone the other day, Mr. Brickman could still recall the young Mr. Cruise’s ambition. He also recalled his “physicality”; Mr. Cruise was an ex-wrestler, and that dancer in the living room was no double.

“I think he was very courageous as an actor,” Mr. Brickman said. “He would not really protect himself-he would throw himself into that character.”

But the forces behind Risky Business proved to be less risk-oriented than their star; Mr. Brickman lost a fight with David Geffen over the movie’s ending-Mr. Brickman wanted a bittersweet finale, with Joel getting rejected by Princeton-and still can’t watch the shiny, happier conclusion without wincing. Of course, audiences ate it up and the movie went on to be a big hit, and it was the last movie Tom Cruise made before he was famous.The underrated All the Right Moves was next, then the small hiccup with Ridley Scott’s Legend ; next, Top Gun, and then into the stratosphere.

After Top Gun, Mr. Cruise joined Paul Newman working for Martin Scorsese in The Color of Money , a surprisingly cunning movie in which Mr. Cruise, in the sequel to The Hustler , plays the takeover artist for Mr. Newman’s cooled-down and beaten-down Fast Eddie Felson. Did Mr. Newman adopt Mr. Cruise on the set, take him stock-car racing, generally wise him up, Felson-style, and disabuse him of making bunk like Top Gun -which may have led Mr. Cruise to films like Born on the Fourth of July ? If he did, it took a while for Old Newman’s admonitions to sink in, however, as Mr. Cruise went on next to Cocktail , his only real camp classic. Then came Rain Man , a good performance, but he was picking up Dustin Hoffman’s toothpicks while Mr. Hoffman picked up the Oscar. Next came Oliver Stone’s Born on the Fourth of July, his first Oscar nomination. Then Days of Thunder , too boring to be camp.

This looks like C.A.A. calculation-high, low, high, low-but at this point, Mr. Cruise was just being a movie star playing Tom Cruise. On Far and Away , another stinker, he was Tom Cruise in a high-school play putting on a brogue, playing with Nicole Kidman. In The Firm , he was Tom Cruise at the firm. Interview with the Vampire -forgot about that, didn’t you?-was a weird detour; in many respects, the dandy, effeminate Lestat was Mr. Cruise’s most adventurous role.

Then Brian DePalma’s ludicrous Mission: Impossible- a huge hit, no script, Cruise missile. Jerry Maguire , up next, the ultimate Tom as Tom role, where Cameron Crowe masterfully blurred the line between the title character and star. Jerry Maguire may be Mr. Cruise’s finest performance-it’s certainly the most likable-but it was not a heavy lift; he had a script, Mr. Crowe’s Billy Wilder–worshipping office-establishing shots and Renée Zellweger as Jean Arthur. He had us at hello.

Then into the abyss: Mr. Cruise and Nicole Kidman went to London to work for Stanley Kubrick on what looked like the project of a lifetime, Eyes Wide Shut . Here was the movie that held the most promise of growing up Mr. Cruise into an adult, as he worked with the greatest living movie director. That it failed was partly the fault of a strange, hygienic prissiness that took over the movie-Mr. Cruise was surrounded by sex, desire and nudity but never let himself get down to real risky business. He is murky and tentative; you never get the sense he wants to drop his knickers. The wife plays it carnal, but for reasons that are impossible to know, Mr. Cruise plays it cute-Andy Hardy at an orgy.

The small role in Magnolia as T.J. Mackey, though, is damned good, the closest portrait of Mr. Cruise unbound, ironic in that character’s penultimate scene is a stare-down with a reporter-a TV interviewer who has caught him making conflicting statements about his past. Mr. Cruise, of course, knows from interviewers, and when he violently gets up from his seat and says, “I gave you my fucking time, bitch,” you want to itch, it feels so real.

Minority Report marks a mini-penance for both the Vanilla Sky Mr. Cruise and for Mr. Spielberg, whose posthumous Stanley Kubrick collaboration, last summer’s gloppy A.I ., left many audiences seasick. Minority Report , based on a short story by Philip K. Dick, tells the story of a Washington D.C. police “precrime” unit-a detail assigned to arrest killers before they commit murder. They’re aided by a trio of precognitive psychics-”precogs”-who backfloat in a curious hot tub and provide incriminating evidence of future actions.

Of course, the precogs turn out to be human, too. We learn pre-crime has its costs, and the timely thrust of Minority Report is the tension between technology, intelligence and freedom. Minority Report is not fiery-it’s the opposite of an Oliver Stone number-but it is a movie for Americans in 2002; its purpose seems as much Stanley Kramer as Stanley Kubrick. And Mr. Spielberg said he wanted to make Mr. Cruise “not the center, but part of the whole.” And though Mr. Cruise has to anchor Minority Report , however, the film does little to define Tom Cruise-except to restate his prowess at leaping off buildings.

It’s odd to think of a 50-year-old Tom Cruise. He hasn’t broken and chipped yet, like Clint Eastwood, or become a grizzled bearcub like Steve McQueen. Mr. Newman became a self-amused middle-aged superstar, thanks to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting , but his greatest moments showed up even later with The Verdict and The Color of Money . Because he is such a money magnet, it’s certain Mr. Cruise will be asked to continue to make blockbusters, but he’s still waiting for a Wes Anderson or Christopher Nolan or some baby auteur we haven’t heard about yet-perhaps he or she is lurking in the Astor Place Starbucks right now, iMovie-ing up a whimsical part-to come along and pry Tom Cruise into daylight. He’s too old to play Hamlet but he’d be better off not aging into real-life anime.

And here’s his pre-cog: In 20 years, he’ll slide across the Kodak Theater stage, Joel Goodson at 60, probably to collect some hardware-Mr. Spielberg said Monday night that in 20 years, Tom Cruise “should have two Oscars”-but mostly to receive congratulations for having cracked the code. What code? The code he first presented in Risky Business -the combination of sadness, anger and exuberance that has made his own imprint on the lonely and lacquered American personality.